Author's Notes: It's been a while, hasn't it? One good thing about my hiatus from this fandom is that I actually did have the opportunity to spend some time in Egypt, which I hope will improve my scenery descriptions considerably! I even rode a camel in the desert, and what happened to me on that occasion will almost certainly make it into a story one of these days. ;)
I'm sorry this isn't another chapter of Déjà Vous. A lot of things have happened to me since then, and, whether for good or ill, I'm simply not the person I was when I started that story. But I have picked it up again, and am trying to finish it—I have two chapters currently in the final phases of editing.
First, though, I needed to write my way back to these characters, if that makes sense. And so we have this story. I hope you enjoy it.
We Need To Talk
On the evening of the third day of their travels, they reached Aswan, a village well-known for its mercantile propensities: the main thoroughfare of the market offered everything a weary traveller could possibly desire, at prices that were (after the customary period of haggling) actually quite reasonable. With the sale of the camels and Jonathan's silver-plated waterproof cigarette case, the sand-scoured adventurers were able, without much trouble, to procure rooms at an English hotel and three fair-sized travel trunks, the latter for the purpose of transporting what Jonathan gleefully insisted on referring to as "the loot."
With the money they had left over, they also picked up a few of the barest necessities, such as clean clothing, sturdy shoes, and toiletries. Upon discovering that their hotel housed an excellent bookseller, Evelyn Carnahan insisted that books also belonged in the necessities category, and refused to be dissuaded from this position until Jonathan pointed out that she'd left her reading glasses in Cairo during her rather precipitate departure.
It was relatively simple to book passage on the first boat bound for Cairo, which happened to be a luxury steamer. Aside from the minor inconvenience of the boat being packed with enthusiastic German tourists, the steamer was more than adequate to all of their needs: there was hot water, soft beds, three delicious meals a day, drinks of all varieties, and—wonder of wonders!—even a small library, located in the ship's lower sitting room. Evelyn had already read the majority of its offerings, but she was never one to look a gift book in the mouth, so to speak.
The second evening of their rather leisurely cruise along the Nile, Rick found himself nursing an excellent glass of Egyptian beer and feeling rather mellow. It was a refreshing change from the hectic pace of the past week. The trio were seated on the open deck of the ship. The Germans tended to emerge only at the hottest parts of the day, in order to lie out on chaises until their pallid, sweaty flesh was nicely braised; now, at sunset, they had all adjourned to the lower sitting room to admire each other's ludicrous embroidered fezzes and write in their travelogues. Evelyn, the only one of the group who spoke passable German, had tried to chat with a couple of them, but she'd quickly become frustrated by their insistence that Egypt was little more than a tacky tourist trap—not to mention their propensity to show her bits of painted stone reliefs and other items they'd pilfered from the various sites they'd visited. Rick and Jonathan had reached a mutual understanding that she must be kept away from their shipmates at all cost, or the result would inevitably be murder most foul—either hers, or theirs.
Seated around a small table by the railing, Rick, Evelyn, and Jonathan were (thankfully) quite alone, with the exception of the ship's stewards, who appeared periodically to replenish their refreshments. In true gentlemanly fashion, the two men occupied the seats closest to the railing, with Evelyn seated at an equidistant point between them.
She was wearing a loose white caftan, an oversized grey cardigan, and a rather unruly gold paisley scarf, all purchased in the Aswan market stalls. She bore a remarkable—and, for Rick at least, disappointing—resemblance to a pile of laundry. She had elected to accessorize this fetching ensemble with an enormous floppy straw hat that she had somehow procured from one of the older German ladies. The effect was slightly ridiculous—not only because the hat didn't particularly suit her, but because, after over a week in the desert, trying to protect her rather prominent nose from sunburn was a bit like locking the proverbial barn door after the horse had been stolen. Or in this case, freckled.
Supremely oblivious to Rick's disapproval of her sartorial choices, Evelyn was telling a very long story about work at the museum, which she seemed to think quite comical, the punchline of which was apparently "ferrous tanged projectile point." Jonathan laughed uproariously at this, while Rick managed a vaguely appreciative smile—archaeological humour not being particularly to his taste. Beneath the table, Evelyn's tiny foot pressed affectionately against his own. The smile widened.
Opinionated and erudite, the Carnahans were the type of people whose conversation had the natural physical properties (and occasionally, other qualities) associated with hot air: it tended to expand until it filled whatever space it occupied. Rick wondered at times if they even realized he was still there. It wasn't that they excluded him, exactly; it was more that they were doing just fine without his contributions.
They talked almost incessantly, about anything and everything. Rick hadn't realized, before meeting them, that there were so many things in the world that two people could talk about—let alone two people who had known each other for decades. Wouldn't you run out of things to say to each other in all that time? Apparently not.
Rick was familiar with the expression "two's company, three's a crowd," but he had to admit that in this particular situation, three seemed the ideal number. Faced with the daunting prospect of satisfying Evelyn's insatiable hunger for talk, Rick found that Jonathan's presence relieved him of the burden of having to be either gregarious or academic. Instead, he was able to sit quietly in a corner between the Carnahan siblings and simply watch, with the air of a wealthy sophisticate observing a mildly amusing doubles match. He found that he learned a lot about Evelyn this way—more than he would have if she had simply told him about herself. And with each new facet of her that was revealed, he found himself even more charmed by her.
The siblings soon started upon the topic of books. That is to say, they resumed a conversation about literature that had been going on, as far as Rick could ascertain, several hundred years. Give or take. Each seemed bound and determined to administer the death of a thousand paper cuts.
Rick, meanwhile, alternated between watching the glowing spectacle of the Egyptian sunset, and gazing at the equally radiant splendour of the girl seated beside him. He had the distinct impression that looking at either for too long might prove dangerous.
"It's just such utter trash," Evelyn was saying. "Really, Jonathan." She was perched on the edge of her seat. Rick had found that the degree to which she seemed on the verge of exiting her comfortable chair signaled the intensity of her personal stake in the conversation.
Rick loved watching her get annoyed--as long as it wasn't at him, of course. There was something magnificent about her when she was on a real tear: eyes liquid black and searing, tiny fists clenched, a delicate flush spreading from her rose-petal cheeks to her arum-lily throat. She wasn't quite to that point, but he could tell she was getting there. Over a stupid novel, of all things. Then again, he supposed that if anyone had earned the right to take what was written in books seriously, it was Evelyn.
Jonathan gave an exasperated sigh. "Trash? Trash?? The Great Gatsby is many things, but not that." He paused to sip a gin and tonic—his third of the evening. Rick noted that Jonathan was in the early, more pleasant stages of inebriation, which made a person that much more likely to consider himself the world's leading authority on any topic currently under discussion. "You're just outraged because Fitzgerald has dared to write something real, something that expresses this generation's shedding of bathos and sentiment."
"But it's so sordid!" Evelyn stirred her tea rather more forcefully than was called for, then set the spoon down in the saucer with an audible clink. "Glorifying debauchery and excess… carelessness and murder… everyone going to bed with everyone else…"
Rick's interest in literature was suddenly piqued. He was also mildly amused by the fact that Evelyn had whispered the words 'going to bed,' when they were plainly the only people on the entire deck.
"Surely you can concede that the prose itself is magical? The man has a way with words, Evie."
"I'm not disputing the quality of the writing. All I'm saying is, when I read a novel, I prefer to read about characters that inspire me. Who, in spite of their flaws, have traits that I find admirable. No one in that book inspires me. I think they're all disgusting. Particularly the women—they're all so callous."
Jonathan didn't even dignify her assessment with a verbal response, but instead simply flapped his hand dismissively at her. There was silence for a moment, and then he seemed to rally, and came back with, "Don't you talk to me about trash, anyhow, my dear little hypocrite. I know for a fact that your favourite novel is The Moonstone."
Evelyn, who had taken up stirring her tea again, dropped the spoon entirely at this point. It bounced under the table, unnoticed by either sibling. She seemed about to deny the accusation, but then her eyes narrowed, indicating her decision to go on the offensive. "And what if it is?" she challenged. She said it quietly, but her teacup rattled ominously in its saucer. "Wilkie Collins was a master of his genre."
Rick, who felt himself entirely superfluous to the discussion, wedged himself under the table and retrieved Evelyn's wayward teaspoon. Driven by impulse, he reached out and softly brushed her slim white ankle with the tips of his fingers. Her foot twitched. He paused a moment, then continued the caress, tracing the gentle swell of her calf with his index finger. As intent as she seemed on hiding them, Rick couldn't help but notice that she had amazing legs—well-formed by all of the walking and bicycling she'd done while at school, and maintained through a season of climbing library ladders. She wasn't wearing any stockings; her skin was cool to the touch. He felt, rather than heard, her soft intake of breath.
Meanwhile, Jonathan, having hit his mark, was smug. "Collins was a hack," he said evenly. "And a Dickensian hack at that!" He crossed his legs emphatically as if to punctuate this statement, delivering a swift kick in the jaw to Rick. It was entirely possible that this maneuver was deliberate; Jonathan had absolutely no patience for what he referred to as Rick and Evelyn's "mooning" over one another, and he had a preternatural instinct for knowing when it was happening in his presence.
Rick extricated himself from beneath the table. "Got it," he muttered, passing the teaspoon to Evelyn, who stared at it as if she had never seen it before. She appeared quite calm, but her ears were pink.
Jonathan, still crowing, folded both hands over his knee. "You're woefully behind the times, Evie. Tell me, do you also wear petticoats and ride your bicycle sidesaddle?"
"At least he's an English hack," Evelyn shot back, still perched precariously at the apex of her seat cushion. "If you like the rotten Americans so much, take yourself off and live there."
This preposterous remark caught Jonathan mid-sip, and he only narrowly avoided misting the entire company with gin. "If I like the Americans?" he echoed dubiously. "Sis, if anyone in this family is biased towards the Yanks, it certainly isn't me."
Jonathan never wasted an opportunity to needle Evelyn about her association with Rick, although privately Rick had to admit that she had walked right into that one. Particularly given the fact that they hadn't really had much opportunity to discuss exactly what she thought of Americans in general—not to mention this American in particular.
Ignoring her brother with magnificent aplomb, Evelyn turned to Rick and asked, "What do you think?" Despite the coolness of the evening, he had the distinct sensation of being under a very bright, very hot spotlight. He reacted accordingly: he began to sweat.
"About Americans?" he asked. "They're not bad, I guess. Once you get to know them." He grinned in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner, and resisted the urge to mop his brow with his sleeve.
She huffed impatiently, clearly not in the mood for his particular brand of debonair charm. "No, about The Great Gatsby."
Rick shrugged awkwardly, grin fading. This was exactly what he'd been afraid of—that sooner or later, she would come to her senses and realize that he wasn't anywhere near brainy enough for her. He'd been hoping for later (as in, thirty years later) rather than sooner.
She leaned in towards him expectantly for what seemed like an eternity.
He shook his head, uncharacteristically dumbstruck, and glanced over the railing of the ship, calculating the distance between him and the dark, slow-moving Nile. Maybe I ought to just swim for it, he thought glumly.
Jonathan, sensing the difficulty, reached over and gave Rick a jocular tap on the arm. "I'll lend it you, old man. You'll see, it's brilliant. Between the two of us, we'll bring her round." Jonathan tended to play the 'battle of the sexes' angle when he argued with Evelyn—which, of course, automatically stacked the odds in his favour now that Rick had joined the party.
"You'll do no such thing, either of you," Evelyn declared, crossing her arms and retreating sulkily into the depths of her chair. "I will not be swayed by the mere fact of your combined masculinity. Impressive though it may be." Her tone made it quite clear that she was speaking ironically, at least in Jonathan's case.
"And that, as they say, is that, eh?" Jonathan downed the rest of his drink, then rubbed his shoulder meditatively. "Well… it's about time for this old man to toddle along to bed, and let you young rascals enjoy the rest of the night." He stood, and patted his sister affectionately on the shoulder as he eased past her chair.
She reached up and briefly covered his hand—the bandaged one—with her own. "Good night, Jon."
"Sweet dreams, old mum. Good night, O'Connell."
Most evenings, Rick looked forward to being alone with Evelyn. Not only because he enjoyed kissing her, but because occasionally—very occasionally—well, once, in Aswan, when Jonathan had left the hotel in search of a drink and they'd somehow ended up alone in her room—she had permitted him to take other liberties as well. More than permitted, actually; he got the sense that she relished their late-evening encounters just as much, if not more, than he did. Which made sense; after all, it was probably all new territory for her.
Tonight, however, Rick felt the beads of sweat on the back of his neck prickling again the moment Jonathan disappeared below deck. His collar felt damp and cold. Why had she asked him about that stupid book, anyhow? She knew he wasn't particularly well-read. Was she trying to make him look like an idiot?
He turned to Evelyn, who was regarding him almost hungrily. "Left to our own devices," she murmured, scraping her chair ever-so-slightly closer to his. "What shall we do, Mister O'Connell?" Her tone made it quite clear that she was not interested in any more talk.
Rick was on more familiar ground now—this was one conversation he felt more than qualified to handle. He scratched his head, feigning confusion. "We could, um… play cards?" he suggested.
She flashed him that crooked little smile, the one that always hit him like a sucker punch.
"No, huh? Well… there's that great library downstairs. We could go get some books and read to each other." The moment the word book was out of his mouth, he started to get that uneasy feeling again. What if she took him seriously?
Mercifully, Evelyn demurred again, giving him a particularly sultry look.
"Well, I don't know, then." He hooked an arm around the back of her chair, and drew her closer until their knees bumped under the table. "I guess we better think of something, fast, or else."
She tilted her face up towards his. "Or else… what?" she whispered.
Rick dipped his head down until his mouth met hers, and felt the familiar heady rush envelop him. The softness of her skin, her scent… her very presence intoxicated him, almost to the point of madness. His bones ached with it. He wanted to grab her and crush her against him, and then he wanted to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off back into the desert. Where everything had been simple. (Killer mummies notwithstanding.)
The kiss deepened, intensified, and he realized with a thrill that her hand was on his leg, little fingernails raking the top of his thigh. He pulled her closer, gathering her into his lap, and she reached up and threaded her fingers through his hair. There was a sense of increased urgency to her actions that was different from their encounters in the desert: she was so intent on getting close that it felt as though she were trying to pass right through him. It was actually a bit painful—he hadn't mentioned it to her, but he strongly suspected that he might have cracked a rib as a result of the fairly comprehensive thrashing Imhotep had given him back at Hamunaptra. She was curled up against him in such a way that her sharp little knee was pressing right in the tender spot.
After an interval, she extricated herself from the kiss with an audible popping noise. "You're sweating," she noted, stroking the nape of his neck with feather-light touches. His collar was still moist from earlier, his hair damp with perspiration. Solicitously, she inquired, "I hope I'm not making you too warm?"
"Uh…" He struggled for words, finally arriving at, "Yeah, but… it's the good kind of warm."
"Oh, good. That's good."
"How about you?" he asked. After all, she was the one wearing all those layers—although, at some point in the proceedings, she had lost her ridiculous hat, hopefully over the railing. He cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand, grazing her mouth with his thumb. "Everything okay?"
"I'm well. Thank you." Her hair was thoroughly mussed, clothes in disarray, and she was still catching her breath, but she managed to respond as though they were at afternoon tea and he had just asked how she liked the cucumber sandwiches.
"You got yourself pretty worked up there," he observed—then immediately regretted it when she shifted away from him and stood up, hands fluttering at her throat like tiny birds.
"I… I didn't mean…" she stammered, covering her mouth with her fingers. Already flushed, her colour deepened.
"No, it was, um, nice." Nice was the least of what it was. "Come on, come back here." He patted his leg.
Hesitantly, she perched on his knee, as though it were a see-saw. He curled an arm around her waist and pulled her in until she was nestled solidly (albeit gently) against his chest.
"There we go," he said. "Isn't that better?"
She said nothing, but gazed at him solemnly. He didn't like the way she was biting her lip—she always did that when she was trying to stop herself from saying something. It never worked.
He took her hand and began playing with her little fingers, threading them between his own. Her stillness only served to tighten the knot of unease that had been burrowing into the pit of his stomach all evening.
Was this it, he wondered? Was that a goodbye kiss they'd just had?
She disentangled her hand from his. "What are we to do?" She smiled, but her eyes were doleful.
He knew what she was talking about, but he wanted to be sure. "About what?"
"About this, about—" she indicated their proximity to each other, "us."
At a loss for how to respond, Rick went with his strengths. "Well, I know one thing we could do," he murmured, planting a kiss in the hollow at the base of her throat.
Gently, but inexorably, she pushed him away. "I'm serious, Rick."
At least she was still calling him by his first name. That was a good sign—he hoped.
"So am I, honey," he replied, affecting an outward calm. "What's on your mind?"
"I have to know… do you see any future with me?"
"Future?" He was still studiedly casual, but his heart was hammering so hard he knew she could feel it. "Hadn't really thought about it."
She did him the courtesy of not calling him a bare-faced liar. "Think about it now."
"We don't have to decide anything right this second, Evelyn. There's time." He knew even as he spoke the words that he was wrong—that the instant they had walked, hand-in-hand, into the market in Aswan, things had changed, and a sort of countdown had been set in motion. Their return to Cairo meant a return to real life, and all of the obligations and rules that went along with it. And Evelyn Carnahan wasn't the kind of girl you just asked to wait.
When Evelyn spoke again, her tone was chilly. "And what, exactly, am I to do while you are 'deciding'?"
"What do you mean?" Why was it only his decision all of a sudden? He had thought they were in this together.
Still in that same cold voice, she elucidated, "What will you do for work? Where do you plan to live?"
So that was it: she was worried he was going to take off. Well, it wasn't surprising, considering that he hadn't exactly been in the most stable of living situations when they met.
"In Cairo," he assured her, giving her a squeeze. It was a bit like hugging an ice sculpture. "I have friends there, I can find a place. I'll pick up some kind of work, I always do. You and I can still—see each other." The last three words crumbled to ash in his mouth. 'Seeing each other' sounded incredibly hollow after the intimacy of travelling and camping together. He hoped she understood that he meant them to go on as they had been doing—as more than just friends.
"And what about when I leave Egypt?"
"You're leaving?" The thought hadn't even occurred to him; he knew she had dual nationality, and could come and go as she pleased, but he had thought… he had assumed… "Why?"
"What is there to keep me here?" she asked softly.
It was a perfectly reasonable question. After all, he reasoned, she'd achieved her life's pursuit of finding the Book of Amun Ra, even if she hadn't been able to bring it back with her. And she'd seen things over the course of the past week that would have made a seasoned veteran piss his pants where he stood. It was natural that she'd want some time to escape, to reflect. And he certainly hadn't offered her any kind of commitment; if anything, he'd skirted the issue quite handily. Until now.
"What about… the museum?" It wasn't the reason he'd meant to offer, but it was a valid one.
Evelyn shook her head, flyaway curls fluttering at her brow. When he reached out to smooth them down, she ducked her head away from his hand. "That's only a term position, for the winter. I'll be finished there in a few weeks, and now that Dr. Bay is… well, I can't count on any more kindness from that source. I was hoping I'd have something better by now—lecturing at my old college, perhaps, or at the very least, fieldwork."
"So… what are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure. Jonathan and I will go home for a while, and then I suppose we'll see… I still have to work out a way to explain the things we found. They should be in a museum. And I'd like to publish, but I can't very well say the information came from Hamunaptra—no one would believe me, and even if they did, the last thing I want is to draw more attention back there."
Rick couldn't help but be aware of how many times she had used the word I in that statement. Not only that, but she had referred to England as home. Rick had never called any place home, and he had assumed Evelyn would want to stay with him. He had assumed home would be wherever they were together.
"So you and Jonathan… you two have talked about this." It wasn't a question. Well, of course they had; after all, God knew they talked about everything else. Rick suddenly felt a pang of envy for the ease and familiarity of that relationship—the assumption that they would simply go on together, as they had always done, come what may, two ships sailing placidly towards the horizon. He'd never really had anyone that he could depend on like that. Until now, he added mentally, the truth and clarity of that statement startling him. He did think of Evelyn and Jonathan as friends, at the very least, and possibly the closest thing to family that he'd ever had. He felt stung by the fact that they hadn't thought to include him in their little plans.
"We'll be leaving at the end of the digging season," Evelyn affirmed. "And I'm not sure when we'll be back." She was watching him very closely, as if waiting for an outburst.
"What about me?" he asked quietly.
"That's what I've been trying to ask you, Rick," she replied. "What about you?"
Rick's temper suddenly flared. "So you're giving me an ultimatum?"
Silence. Her face was blank, unreadable.
"What? Surprised that a dummy like me would know such a big word?" he taunted. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a small voice was telling him that this was a bad road to be venturing down. Surely they could work this out.
"I only meant that you could come back with us. If you and I were… if we…" The word married hung between them a moment, suspended by their mutual anxiety, then dropped away, unspoken. "If we formalized our arrangement," she said at last.
"Is that what this is? You're—what, calling my bluff? Time's up? Get hitched or hit the road?" He retreated, hiding his fear and doubt behind callousness. "Boy, you sure do have a high opinion of your charms, sister. We hardly know each other."
Evelyn stood up, stiffly, drawing away from him. "There is no need to be cruel," she told him, biting off each individual word. "Mister O'Connell."
He gave a derisive grunt. "We're back to that again?" He hated it when she was cold like that—when she acted as though she didn't even know his name. Like he was something she had scraped off the bottom of her shoe.
She crossed her arms, squaring her little shoulders as if bracing for an impact. "As you say, we haven't known each other very long. And if we can't bother be civil to one another, I don't see any call for familiarity. Do you?"
"How is it civil to lead me on and then tell me you're leaving?" he demanded.
Evelyn paled. "Lead you on? I beg your pardon?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Evelyn. Every night, you and me, necking like teenagers." Despite his determination to go on the offensive, he couldn't help but be charmed that the mere mention of this activity brought the colour back to her cheeks. "No discussion, no nothing. And I didn't hear you complaining."
"Well, nor you!"
"Honey," he used the endearment with a tone that rendered it an epithet, "I'm a man."
"And therefore absolved of any consideration for others or responsibility for your actions? How convenient." She sighed bitterly. "Well, I suppose it was rather ridiculous of me to expect that you would want any part of me."
He laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, trust me, there are parts of you I—"
"Stop it!" she yelled, stamping her little foot. It would have been funny if the situation hadn't been quite so grim. "Stop pretending you're such a… a reprobate. You aren't fooling anyone. You do have feelings, whether you want to own up to them or not!" With quiet determination, she continued, "I care for you, Rick, very deeply, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. What's more, I know you feel the same."
She had him dead to rights: she was the only person he had met who never really bought his big tough guy act, who seemed to be looking right into his soul every time she glanced in his direction. It was one of the things he found most unsettling about her—that she somehow knew him, even after so short a time.
The possibility of being married to Evelyn didn't scare him for his own sake. If he'd learned anything from the past couple of weeks, it was that he could quite easily and contentedly follow wherever she chose to lead. He thought he loved her—he was pretty sure he did, actually. Hell, he'd been prepared to die for her sake just a few days ago. She was good for him, and what was more, he could be good for her, too.
But that didn't mean she knew what she was getting into. She was still so young, so new to the ways of the world. He was her first love. Given time, she might regret the rashness of her choice. She might grow to resent him. And that was the last thing he wanted. What if, after all, her feelings were just a case of punch-drunk desert infatuation? He had to be sure. She just needed some time to catch her breath. They both did.
Besides which, what right did she have to go around issuing deadlines? This wasn't school and he wasn't a student. Let her pack her bags if she wanted. He'd propose to her when he was damn good and ready, and not a moment before.
She watched him expectantly, waiting for an answer. An affirmation. "Don't you?" she prompted.
His head was reeling. "Give me a minute to think, okay?"
"Rick, you shouldn't have to think. It's a simple question. Either you have those feelings for me… or you don't."
"Then I guess I don't!" he retorted, regretting the words the second they were out of his mouth.
"Well." She took a deep, shaky breath. "If that's how you really feel, I suppose it's for the best that I find out now." Her voice broke on the last word.
"I guess so."
She had a point: maybe sooner was better than later, after all. It would be easier for him to cut loose now, than to sit around waiting for her to come to her senses and let go. And it would be easier for her to get over him if she believed that he didn't care.
"So we… we're finished, then," she said, trying to recapture her veneer of icy English reserve. She didn't quite manage it.
"Fine." Rick could feel his eyes starting to smart, and not just from the dry air. He could feel the world contracting around him. He felt as though she were burying him alive—walling him up in a tomb, brick by brick. His highly-developed self-preservation instincts urged him to run away, or to fight, but he forced himself to stay in his seat and take what he had coming to him.
"'Fine'?" Her eyes darkened. "Is that all you have to say to me, Rick O'Connell? After everything we've been through? 'Fine'?!"
He didn't respond. He didn't trust himself to speak again, especially when a tear slipped down her cheek. Evelyn wasn't the type of woman who cried easily.
"In that case," she continued, staring fixedly at some distant point over his left shoulder, "I really ought to thank you for saving my life. I was under the impression you did it because you felt—something—for me, but clearly I was mistaken. The fact that you did it at all is nothing short of remarkable." She was crying openly now. "I suppose you'll want to be paid for your services."
"That's not what I—"
She cut him off abruptly. "I'll arrange it with Jonathan. I think it's best if you and I don't speak to each other again."
"Good night, Mister O'Connell."
She turned her back on him, spine straight, head held high, and began to walk away. If she looks back, even once, he thought, it'll be okay.
Jonathan was having an excellent morning. The sun was shining, he was homeward bound at last, his shoulder and arm were hardly bothering him, and there was a trunk full of gold in his cabin. Best of all, they were travelling on a ship with a well-stocked bar. He was feeling so magnanimous that even the thought of having to endure his sister, her suitor, and their rather sick-making interactions didn't even faze him.
When Evelyn arrived at the breakfast table, red-eyed and looking like she hadn't slept, Jonathan wasn't terribly concerned. He'd known Evie long enough to know that she was a mercurial creature at times; little things made her cross for no discernible reason. It was a bit like the tides—best not to fight it, unless you were prepared to be pulled under. It was also entirely possible that she'd simply stayed up all night reading, and was now suffering the consequences—it certainly wouldn't have been the first time. Or perhaps she and O'Connell had been up late disporting themselves. Jonathan shook his head briskly to clear it of this most distasteful thought, then applied himself vigorously to tea, toast, and sausages.
Once again having dressed herself with complete indifference to either style or personal allure, Evie carried with her a small stack of books from the ship's dilapidated library—a sure sign that she intended to be left to her own devices that day. Without so much as a 'hello' to her dining companion, she opened a book and began squinting at it.
Jonathan reached over and gave her ear a tweak. It was force of habit, really; her appearance at the table—dressed like a tiny spinster and hauling around a pile of mouldy old books—had him momentarily questioning whether they'd somehow managed to travel back in time ten years. She jumped in her seat, jerking away from him.
"Bad manners, old dear," he chided, indicating the book. "I raised you better than that."
Evie didn't say anything, but the glare she gave him made words completely superfluous.
He flapped his napkin at her insistently. "Away with it. Now, if you please."
Sullenly, she closed the book with a snap and handed it to him. "Happy?" she growled.
"Simply delirious." He set the book down at his right hand and replaced the napkin in his lap with an illusionist's flourish. "Now. How did you sleep?"
"I see. And what do you plan to do today?"
She shot him an agonized look.
"Look here, madam, there's no need to be stroppy with me because your boy-friend kept you up all hours of the night."
"Do be quiet, Jonathan," she snapped.
The steward arrived, and Evie ordered a cup of tea in a rather strained voice. She didn't even ask what varieties they had, which was when Jonathan knew for certain that she was in a proper mood.
When the relatively tractable O'Connell suddenly turned up—bleary-eyed, and looking as though he hadn't slept, shaved, or even changed his clothes since the night before—Jonathan began to feel just a tad apprehensive.
The moment the lumbering brute sat down, little Evie bolted her scalding-hot tea, threw down her cup, collected her books, and dashed out of the room so quickly that she forgot her ridiculous scarf. It sat, forlornly, wound around the empty chair, a silent signifier.
For his part, O'Connell resembled nothing so much as a great, shambling bear with a particularly nasty thorn in its paw. Jonathan had better sense than to meddle with such a creature. However, it was an established fact that Jonathan's good sense rarely stopped him from meddling.
"Sleep all right, old man?"
Rick gave an unintelligible grunt and helped himself to coffee. It was the Egyptian kind—thick enough to stand a spoon in, with a kick like a camel's hind leg. He knocked it back like a shot, poured himself another. This was not a good sign.
"I never sleep well on ships," Jonathan continued cheerfully, as though they were two friends having a civilized conversation over a delightful breakfast. "Never have. I don't know what it is—I've slept quite soundly on a train, a bus, and even, on one memorable occasion, in a rickshaw while sandwiched between two other chaps. But never a ship. In fact, about ten years ago, I sailed on the—"
"Jonathan, shut the hell up." His gaze was still fixed on the doorway through which Evie had disappeared.
By now, Jonathan knew better than to take O'Connell's little jibes personally. "Trouble in paradise?" he inquired.
"She told me. About you two going back to England."
"Indeed." It was inevitable, he realized, that there would be some friction over where they ought eventually to live, but it was early still to be making such decisions. They weren't even engaged yet, as far as Jonathan was aware, although he felt quite certain it was only a matter of time.
"She thinks we oughta get married," O'Connell added, darkly.
It appeared that the time was in fact upon them, Jonathan reflected, somewhat startled. Well, Evie never was one to beat about the bush when she was after something. If she had set her cap at the fellow, there was little point in fighting it. "And what have you to say on that score?" he inquired politely. He thought he was hiding his shock rather well, until he realized he was buttering his napkin. Fortunately, O'Connell was busy wallowing in self-pity and didn't notice.
"We decided to go our separate ways."
Jonathan didn't say a word, but he couldn't stop his eyebrows from climbing. This was even more unexpected. Jonathan had never thought himself a romantic, but he'd been forced to admit that there was something rather touching about the way Evie had taken to O'Connell, who in turn had seemed quite smitten with her. Despite their bickering, he hadn't thought there was any serious impediment to their eventual union—and Evie was getting to that age, after all. Perhaps O'Connell wasn't the marrying kind; Jonathan could certainly sympathize, having embraced lifelong bachelorhood himself. But in that case, why wasn't the man congratulating himself on his narrow escape from the matrimonial noose?
Jonathan busied himself in applying a layer of jam to his third piece of toast. He elected not to remark on the fact that O'Connell, who normally devoured everything in sight at mealtimes, wasn't eating a bite.
"I guess she didn't talk to you about it," added O'Connell dourly.
Jonathan, who had been caught with a mouthful of toast, shook his head and swallowed. "I'm afraid not. Then again, she never was one to confide in me about her affairs of the heart." He took another bite, and worked his way through that before continuing, "Even when she broke off her engagement—"
"Engagement?" O'Connell echoed, in a voice like distant thunder.
Jonathan hoped he hadn't put his foot in it. Then again, if they had really decided not to pursue things, there wasn't much danger of anything he had to say affecting the situation. "Yes, to a chap called Algernon Hepplewhite." Jonathan waited, but O'Connell clearly didn't recognize the name. "I'm not surprised she never told you, old man. As I say, she isn't generally forthcoming on this particular subject."
"How long ago was this?"
"When she was, oh, let me think… about nineteen or twenty? Thereabouts. Quite young still. They met at school. Oxford, don't you know."
O'Connell was looking rather stupified about the whole business, which struck Jonathan as a bit odd. Hadn't it ever occurred to him that Evie had lived a full quarter of a century before he turned up? It was damned hypocritical: Jonathan didn't think for a moment that the young Legionnaire had lived the life of a monk before the younger Carnahan took his fancy.
After a lengthy silence, O'Connell posited, "He must have been a smart guy, then?"
Jonathan nodded. "Algie? Oh, yes. Clever chap. Not as clever as Evie, of course," he annotated, loyally, "but he did take a First in Classics. Preferred his languages dead." Jonathan vaguely recalled some nonsense about him writing sonnets in hieratic, or trying to. "Just Evie's type. Or so one might assume," he added hastily, not wanting to rub salt in O'Connell's wounds.
"So what happened?" O'Connell inquired.
"That's just it, old man—I don't know. I drove up to see her at half-term, and I discovered that the whole thing had been dissolved. Poor chap was simply devastated. I believe he pressed his suit for quite some time afterwards, but she wouldn't hear of it. Eventually he left off."
"And she never said anything to you about it?"
"I believe her exact words were that they had 'reached the limits of mutual understanding.' We never talked about it after that."
O'Connell gritted his teeth and said only, "Huh."
Jonathan had long ago forsworn interfering in his sister's love life; she was, after all, more than old enough to look after herself. However, O'Connell seemed so utterly dejected that he simply couldn't help offering the younger man a bit of advice. "Look here, old chum. Whatever little argument you've had, give it some time, I'm sure it'll work itself out. Evie can be a bit stubborn sometimes, but—"
O'Connell shook his head emphatically. "You don't understand. We're through. It's—" he choked a bit on the words, but managed to get them out at last— "for the best."
"And who decided that, exactly?" Jonathan was actually somewhat amused by the situation. Young people were so melodramatic when it came to these matters! They acted as though they had invented love, and then they went out of their way to place obstacles between themselves and happiness, instead of doing the reasonable thing and just admitting how they felt. The more intelligent the person, it seemed, the more imaginary obstacles they created.
O'Connell glowered at him, then burst out, "I can't believe she never told me she was engaged!" His large, brown hands curled menacingly into fists, one of which struck the table, causing all the glassware to hop rather precariously.
"I say! Don't shoot the messenger!" Jonathan held up both hands in the time-honoured gesture of surrender. "It was before your time, and I very much doubt you've regaled her with all the details of your various dalliances." Jonathan took O'Connell's silence as affirmation. "Besides, old chap… did you ever ask?"
O'Connell responded to this exceedingly rational inquiry with a non-committal grunt.
"I don't see that it matters, anyhow," Jonathan continued, all too aware of the fact that O'Connell's fingers were flexing in a most unsettling manner, as if they were itching to wrap themselves around someone's throat and squeeze. "If anything, it shows that she's a girl who knows her own mind. After all, it wouldn't have been sporting for her to marry the fellow if her heart wasn't in it."
"I guess." He certainly wasn't giving Jonathan much to work with.
The Englishman drained his teacup to the dregs, tossed his napkin on the table, and stood up. "Come on out to the deck with me and have a smoke, old man. It'll calm your nerves." It was a generous offer—the cigarettes were Turkish, and hand-rolled. Since selling the waterproof case in Aswan, Jonathan had been nursing the few remaining survivors as tenderly as babes in arms. He'd been saving the last two in case of emergency, and the dissolution of Evie and O'Connell's understanding certainly qualified as something in the realm of a natural disaster.
O'Connell took a long moment to consider, during which time Jonathan pocketed the wayward book still sitting on the table, then disentangled Evie's lurid scarf from her chair and arranged it whimsically around his own neck. O'Connell, watching him askance during the entire procedure, didn't seem quite certain whether he could be trusted, but finally the offer of a free cigarette won him over. "Okay. Thanks."
"Don't mention it, old man."
The scenery along the Nile generally consisted of various shades of green and brown. Palm trees, reeds, papyrus plants, cows and donkeys, the rich black loam of cultivated land; here, in the heart of Egypt's most fertile soil, an observer on the deck of a steamer such as this one could expect to see mostly scenes of farm life. The farmers usually stopped their work and waved when they saw the ships; the Egyptians took hospitality very seriously, which was not surprising, as it had been one of their major sources of income since the days of antiquity.
Feeling rather regal, Jonathan waved to the locals as he lit his cigarette and puffed contentedly. He loved everything about a good cigarette: the feel of it in his fingers, the crackle when he first touched a match to the tip, the decadent aroma of the smoke as he exhaled. Cigarettes energized him, made him feel sleek and sophisticated. The fact that it annoyed his sister was merely the icing on a rich slice of tobacco cake.
They'd barely even got the things lit when Evie turned up. It was absolutely typical of her, Jonathan thought—she just had to dampen a chap's high spirits whenever possible. Evie, naturally, did not approve of smoking. In fact, she felt it was a reprehensible habit, and made a point of chastising Jonathan whenever she caught him at it.
As she walked by, she sniffed the air disdainfully, made an unpleasant face, and then brushed by them without saying a word. An observer would have thought they were complete strangers.
O'Connell, hunched over the rail with the cigarette dangling from his lips, was the very portrait of callous indifference; only a slight narrowing of the eyes gave him away.
"And good morning to you, Madam," Jonathan called, cordially. Perhaps it was the influence of the cigarette, but he was feeling the heady confidence of a matador—which was good, because Evie looked as though she were about to gore him.
She paused a moment, then wheeled about and advanced on him. She spoke softly, but there was a murderous glint in her eyes. "There is no need to shout after me, Jonathan. Unlike many of your acquaintances, I am not a common lady of the evening."
Beside him, O'Connell gave a snort, but did not turn around.
Jonathan merely smiled. "Just saying hello, sis. Manners, and all that." He drew on the cigarette.
"Yes, well, if you had any manners you would put that vile thing away. You know I hate it when you smoke. Besides, you smell like a herd of cattle."
"Evie, we're on the Nile. That smell might actually be a herd of cattle."
"You're getting ash all over my new scarf!" She yanked at it indignantly, but Jonathan had knotted it quite solidly. Her emphatic tugging only served to throttle him, and he wasn't entirely certain it was unintentional.
There was a brief but rather emphatic struggle, during which Jonathan's primary goal was to maintain possession of his last cigarette, even at the expense of his neck. Their grappling attracted the attention of several Germans who happened to be passing by, one of whom made a rather cutting remark about the barbaric nature of the English.
"Take it off!" she commanded, administering a sharp smack on the ear. "You're ruining it!"
"Instanter, old girl—only leave off choking me for one moment, won't you?" He found that she had tightened the knots to such a degree that he was unable to pull them free. Instead, he yanked the entire mess off over his head and shoved it into her hands. "In all honesty, Evie, I don't think it really suits you."
She sighed rather dramatically. "I do wish you'd grow up. Both of you."
O'Connell turned to face her, smoking as defiantly as it was possible to smoke. One would have thought he was facing the firing squad. Perhaps in his mind, he was. "Good morning to you too," he said gruffly.
Despite being quite a bit smaller, she managed to look down her nose at him. Evelyn at her stuffiest: this did not bode well. "I see you've elected to join my brother in his dissolution. How nice."
O'Connell shrugged in his uniquely offensive, uniquely American manner. Then he took the cigarette from his mouth and actually blew smoke directly at her. "Don't like smoking, huh? What a surprise."
Jonathan could have sworn that he was deliberately trying to vex Evie. Which wasn't like O'Connell, and not very sporting of him, considering the circumstances.
Evie coughed pathetically, waving her hand in front of her. "And just what is that supposed to mean?" she inquired icily.
"As far as dissolution goes, Evie," Jonathan interjected, "you must concede that cigarettes are a relatively minor vice. It isn't as though we were out here eating opium or what have you." He was trying with all his might to keep the conversational train from going completely off the rails.
Both of them ignored him.
"It just seems like a guy can't have any fun around here without you turning up to put a stop to it," O'Connell told her.
Evelyn's lower lip trembled, and Jonathan, startled, realized that his logical, pragmatic sister was close to tears. "That's what you've been doing all this time, is it? Just having a bit of fun?"
Jonathan got the sense that they weren't talking about smoking anymore.
He wondered exactly what had happened in Aswan that afternoon he'd slipped out for a drink. He hadn't seen any harm in leaving them alone for a couple of hours, particularly since Evie was tired enough that she'd actually fallen asleep in an overstuffed chair in the lobby while he was paying for the rooms. But he had come back to find both of them in Evie's room—fully dressed, thank heavens!—and Rick had seemed peculiarly agitated, while Evelyn had preened, looking rather like the cat who'd swallowed the canary. And the bed had been suspiciously rumpled.
Now, on top of everything else, the bastard was going to make her cry.
Jonathan hoped he wasn't going to have to play the protective older brother in defense of Evie's sullied honour. He didn't particularly fancy watching his life flash before his eyes in the moments before O'Connell thrashed him to a bloody pulp.
Fortunately, O'Connell didn't seem to have the wherewithal to respond to Evie's question, and simply stood there with his mouth hanging open like a great trout. After a very tense moment, she pivoted sharply on her heel and flounced off from whence she came. Jonathan made no attempt to stop her; Evie relished the opportunity for a good flounce. Best to let her get it out of her system.
"You see?" the American growled, cigarette clamped between his teeth. "You see what I have to deal with?"
"Well, to be fair, O'Connell, you did provoke her," he said quietly. The thought of his adamantine sister actually crying had unnerved Jonathan a bit. She'd always been the strong one: she hadn't cried in his presence since the death of their parents. He was used to tactics as varied as silence, shouting, scolding, threats, name-calling, and even the occasional boxing of the ears—but never tears. Jonathan had always appreciated that Evie wasn't one of those calculating females that regularly employed the salt-water defense; she always fought fair in an argument, gave a chap a fighting chance. "She's a relatively easy person to live with, if you aren't trying to pick a fight. And you behaved like a boor just now."
O'Connell blinked at Jonathan, as if he couldn't quite believe his ears. "Are you kidding me? You're actually on her side?"
Jonathan was losing his patience now. "She's my sister, you nit!" he exclaimed. "It isn't a question of sides," he added, wondering how long he had before the brute tossed him over the railing. He hoped there would be time to finish his smoke.
O'Connell, however, seemed to be giving his statement serious consideration. Finally, he nodded. "These are pretty good," he remarked meditatively, indicating the cigarette. Jonathan understood that this was the closest he would get to a concession.
"I've always liked them."
"So… how do I fix this?"
Jonathan sighed. "Well… is it worth fixing?" he asked reasonably.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you love her, old man? Enough to want to marry her?"
O'Connell didn't reply immediately. He finished his cigarette in one long drag, flicking the still-lit end over the railing, then slowly exhaled. "Yeah. I do," he declared.
"Well, then don't tell me—tell her. And, if at all possible, try to avoid smoking in her face while you're doing it. She won't respond well to that approach." Jonathan was being a bit patronizing, but he felt he was entitled, for Evie's sake at least.
"Okay." O'Connell squared his broad shoulders and aimed himself in the direction of the bar. "I'm gonna need a drink first."
Jonathan clapped him on the back. It was a bit like slapping a slab of granite. "A man after my own heart. Good luck—wait, hang on a tick." He reached into his jacket and pulled out the small volume he'd pocketed at breakfast. "Give this a go. It's one of her favourites."
O'Connell eyed the offering suspiciously, and made no move to take it from Jonathan's hand.
"Go on," Jonathan urged. "It won't bite. For heaven's sake, it's only a book."
"I've heard that one before," replied O'Connell grimly.
Some time later, around mid-afternoon, the steamer paused so that the Germans could break up the terrible tedium of sunbathing with a spot of light shopping. Enterprising young Egyptian men in small boats paddled up to the side of the ship, displaying their wares and calling out in various languages. Jonathan leaned over the railing, gin-and-tonic in hand, and observed with mild anthropological interest as the tourists bargained for souvenirs of varying quality. You had to hand it to these fellows: some of them were peddling outright fakes without a scrap of remorse. Jonathan admired them—after all, everyone had to make a living, and what better way to do it than picking a rich tourist's pocket?
Jonathan was feeling rather sprightly when he noticed that one of the vendors was holding up a number of brightly-coloured silks. He felt in his pockets for coins, then waved his hat in the air to get the man's attention. "You there! How much?" he called.
Switching languages without missing a beat, the salesman shouted back, "Ten pound! Ten English pound!"
This quite ludicrous sum having been named, there followed a protracted period of bargaining, which was to be expected and which Jonathan, truth be told, rather enjoyed. At length, the vendor, bemoaning the fate of his six starving children, tossed up the scarf, tied around a small, weighted bag into which Jonathan put the agreed-upon sum. He chucked the bag back down—rather awkwardly, as he didn't normally throw with his right arm—and managed to land it in entirely the wrong boat. "Sorry!" he called. The vendor merely smiled and wished him a good day.
The scarf was the same cool, fresh blue as Egypt's winter sky; Jonathan thought it would suit Evelyn's fair complexion rather better than that ridiculously overwrought gold thing she had nearly strangled him with earlier. He knew she would probably chide him for spending the last of his money, but he couldn't help it.
Polishing off the last of his drink, Jonathan toddled below decks in search of entertainment. A book, perhaps… He wondered where O'Connell had gotten to, and whether he'd sorted things out with Evie yet.
The library (a fairly grandiose name for a couple of shelves stationed in the lounge, almost as an afterthought) had been pretty thoroughly pillaged of every English book, and Jonathan suspected he knew where he might find the culprit. He wasn't particularly interested in reading a German translation of a detective novel he hadn't particularly enjoyed in English—and that was the only title he was able to decipher. She couldn't possibly be reading all of those books at once, he thought. The silly girl had only one pair of eyes. It was dashed annoying.
Tucking the carefully folded scarf under his arm, he made his way along the passenger deck to Evie's cabin.
(Author's note: to avoid scandalizing anyone, 'to knock someone up' in English slang means to knock on their door and wake them up.)
Aside from a couple of quick visits to the ship's dining room, Evelyn had spent the majority of the day hiding in her tiny cabin, ensconced in her pile of pilfered books. There didn't seem to be any other way to escape Rick, and after their confrontation on the deck that morning she wasn't particularly keen on seeing Jonathan either—she knew he would have questions, and she certainly didn't have any ready answers.
She found that she was only able to read for short periods without her glasses before she felt herself going a bit cross-eyed, but she kept on gamely for as long as she could stand it.
She very nearly leapt out of her skin when someone pounded on the door. Mercifully, it was locked. "Who is it?" she called.
"It's me." Rick. Her heart fluttered in her chest like a frightened bird. "Let me in."
"I'm not decent!" This was patently untrue; in point of fact Evelyn was wearing at least three layers, with the grey cardigan featured topmost. She felt safer this way, more prepared to face the world.
But she couldn't face Rick—not now.
"I don't care. We need to talk."
"I've finished talking to you. Go away, please."
Surprisingly, he obeyed. At least, she thought he had, until a moment later when the knocking resumed, more quietly.
"I said go away!" she cried, stamping over to the door and flinging it open.
"I say!" her brother held up his hands, as if to show he came in peace. "What's got you in such a strop, sis?"
"I'm not in a strop," she growled—rather stroppily, if the truth were to be known. She stepped aside to allow him entrance to the cabin, then closed and locked the door behind him.
Jonathan surveyed the room in his usual lordly fashion. "Rather small, eh? I would complain if I were you. See if you can get one with a window. Mine's quite nice."
"It was the last one they had," she explained. "It was either this or share with you."
Jonathan didn't miss a beat. "Cozy, isn't it?"
"What do you want, Jonathan?"
"Can't a fellow stop by to visit his… aha, here we are." He pushed past her and sat down on the rumpled bed next to the pile of books. "A little light reading?" he teased. "You really are planning to hide in here for the rest of the trip, aren't you?"
"I couldn't decide, so I took them all."
She was relieved when Jonathan, who could smell a lie at forty paces, didn't correct her. "Well, then you won't mind parting with one or two." He stacked the books on his knee and shuffled through them, one after the other. "Not much of a selection, is it?"
Evelyn perched on the steamer trunk full of gold that was the room's largest and most cumbersome occupant. "Beggars can't be choosers," she recited. Evelyn found aphorisms a most useful place-filler in any conversation—she was never without a reply as long as she had her pithy little sayings. She thought about adding another one for good measure, but decided against it.
"You have the Bible in here," he observed.
She gave an awkward shrug. "It's been a long time since I read the Good Book."
He regarded her critically. "I thought you were an atheist?"
She was—or at least, she had been until an up-close-and-personal encounter with a walking, talking corpse had forced her to concede at least the possibility of a benevolent, intangible being. "Isn't it possible to have an appreciation for the Bible as a piece of literature?" she countered snappishly. "Not to mention as a historical text; your knowledge of it was certainly helpful in recent events. I thought perhaps it was time to brush up."
Jonathan replaced the book on the bed with no comment other than a single raised eyebrow.
Evelyn was tired of defending herself, of explaining away her actions. The truth was, she couldn't fathom her own behaviour these days either. "Oh, go on," she told him wearily. "Take the lot. I can barely make out half of them anyway."
He stood up, the stack of books tucked under his injured arm. "Thanks, sis." His free hand was rifling inside his jacket. "Just so you don't think I came empty-handed…"
She scowled, thinking of the last time he had said those two words… and the result they had (quite unintentionally) achieved. It seemed a lifetime ago now that Rick had kissed her, so tenderly, and she had simply accepted it as her due. Kisses didn't seem quite as important when she thought that she was going to have a lifetime of them to look forward to.
She had to get off this boat, she thought. She was becoming unspeakably maudlin, and it simply would not do.
Jonathan proffered a scrunched-up piece of fabric that, when unfolded and shaken out, proved to be a lovely silk scarf. It was the crisp, invigorating blue of distant mountains—it even smelled like fresh air and sky (and ever so slightly like stale cigarettes).
"Where did you get it?" she demanded. She knew through considerable experience that Jonathan's gifts often had dubious origins.
"I bought it. I swear, Evie." To illustrate, he turned out his now-empty pockets, showering her floor with stray flakes of tobacco.
She knew that she should really scold him for spending the last of his money on a frivolous trinket—and she didn't doubt that he'd paid far too much for it. Nevertheless, she appreciated the gesture.
Impulsively, she jumped down off the steamer trunk and embraced him. Unprepared, he fell back a pace, but managed not to drop the books. He wrapped his undamaged arm awkwardly around her.
"Thanks, Jon," she murmured into his jacket.
He petted her hair solicitously. "You're quite welcome. Personally, I think it suits you far better than that baroque gold thing. Evie, you're my sister, and I love you dearly, but you really do have the most abominable taste in clothes."
Evelyn laughed loudly in spite of herself, right in his ear. "How rude!" she chided.
Jonathan let her go, and made a show of rubbing the offended ear. "I should say so! Screaming in a chap's ear like that."
She smiled, a bit wistfully. Everything seemed so much easier when Jonathan was around—life without Rick wouldn't be completely awful, it seemed, as long as her brother could still make her laugh.
He chucked her under the chin—a habit left over from her childhood, when shy little Evie had stared intractably at her shoes instead of looking people in the eye. "Chin up, old mum. Let's go and sniff out a cup of tea, shall we?"
She shook her head. "Thank you, but I think I'm going to have a sleep."
"Evie, it's only seven-thirty! We've hours of frivolity ahead of us still. Come on, put something on—or for that matter, take something off," he added, looking her up and down rather disparagingly. "You look as though you've got on three days' worth of clothes."
She shook her head. "I didn't sleep very well last night. Besides, with me tucked away for the night, you'll have no one to keep you honest. You can frivol to your heart's content."
Jonathan gestured pointedly to his empty pockets, then gave a resigned sigh. "These Germans are all very careful with their money, anyhow. It's doubtful I'll find anyone even to play cards with." He shot her a pleading look.
She rolled her eyes elaborately. "All right," she conceded. "If you can't find anything to do in an hour's time, come and knock me up and we'll have a game of Snap."
"Smashing. See you then." He gave her a rather perfunctory kiss on the cheek, and departed.
An hour came and went, and Jonathan didn't reappear—presumably, he was on the trail of more winsome company.
Evelyn began the process of undressing for bed: she let her hair down, divested herself of her various layers, and donned a simple blue-and-white striped cotton robe, of the type favoured by many Egyptian men for daytime wear—warm, yet breathable, and soft against the skin.
She was seated on the bed, brushing her hair, when there was a soft knock at the door: Jonathan, after all. "Come in!" she called, not bothering to get up.
The door creaked open, and Evelyn felt her stomach drop to somewhere in the vicinity of her ankles as she realized that it wasn't her brother standing in the doorway.
"What on earth is the matter with you?!" she demanded, drawing herself up to her full height.
Rick looked down at her, nonplussed.
"I told you to go away!" she elucidated.
"You also told me to come in," he pointed out.
"I thought you were Jonathan." She sniffed the air around him suspiciously. "Have you been drinking?"
Jaw set, eyes blazing, he shoved past her and into the room, which was already filled almost to capacity by the bed, the trunk, and Evelyn herself. "I need to talk to you."
He had changed clothes since breakfast, Evelyn noted, into a pair of crisp chinos and a plain but serviceable shirt, open at the collar. The white shirt contrasted favourably with his brown skin, darkened even further by their trip through the desert. He'd even shaved, and combed his hair. He looked infuriatingly handsome, damn him, and Evelyn wasn't having it.
"Did it never occur to you that I don't particularly want to talk to you?"
She moved to walk out, but Rick stepped neatly between her and the door, kicking it closed behind him with rather more force than was strictly necessary.
"We need to get this cleared up. Now."
As formally English as she could muster, she began, "Mister O'Connell, you seem to be labouring under the impression that--"
"Knock that off!" he shouted, so loudly that she gave an involuntary jump.
Evelyn could scream with the best of them, but a tiny cabin with thin walls was not the place for it. "Please lower your voice," she implored.
He took a step closer, and suddenly the immense height and breadth of him, the sheer power of him, seemed to fill the room. It was a bit like standing in the path of a freight train. Nevertheless, Evelyn crossed her arms, and the two squared off, toe to toe, warrior to warrior. She wasn't about to back down—primarily because there wasn't anywhere left to back down into.
In a more moderate tone, he proposed, "How about this: I promise to stay calm, if you promise to let me have my say. Do we have a deal?"
Evelyn considered these very simple terms, then decided there could be no harm in agreeing to what was really only basic courtesy. She held out her hand, regally. "It's a deal."
He grasped her fingers, holding them rather longer than was traditional for a handshake. She glanced down, but found her gaze drawn back to his as if they had been magnetized. His changeable sea-water eyes suddenly seemed very clear, and very blue.
At last, he let her hand fall away, and Evelyn let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding.
"This whole thing is such a mess," he told her. "I was an ass last night—"
"And this morning," Evelyn interjected, before she could stop herself.
He canted his head in acknowledgement, allowing her the point. "Anyhow, I don't really know why I behaved like that. Scared, I guess."
"Scared?" she repeated, dubiously. The daring adventurer, Rick O'Connell, admitting to being afraid? There had to be a catch. "Of what, exactly?"
"Scared of losing you."
He looked so utterly dejected that she reached for his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze, then letting go. You won't lose me, Rick, not ever, she wanted to say, but held back, biting her lip. Waiting for him to finish, as she'd promised.
"I thought you might… I don't know, change your mind about me. About us."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because I never join in any of your discussions about books, for starters."
In spite of the gravity of the situation, Evelyn couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, Rick, I'm so sorry! I'm afraid I have been showing off a bit—I always do, in spite of myself. I know it's silly, but I suppose I wanted to prove to you that I was clever about subjects other than Egyptology. But you must find it so boring, me prattling on at Jonathan day and night about books you haven't read and music you don't listen to."
"What?" he asked, incredulously. "Boring? No way. I love listening to you talk."
Evelyn beamed, rather gratified by this admission.
"I just didn't… you know, you're so smart. I thought maybe you'd decide I wasn't educated enough for you or something."
"Oh, Rick…" Evelyn felt hot tears of frustration prickling at the corners of her eyes. How on earth could he think she would ever be so shallow? "That doesn't matter!" she protested. "I like you—I've always liked you—just as you are."
"Yeah. I get that now." He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a small, battered volume she recognized as the one she'd handed over to Jonathan at breakfast. He ducked his head and gave her an embarrassed little smile, as though she'd caught him with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. "I had a little help."
"Where did you get that?"
"Jonathan. He said you liked it."
"And you read it?" she asked. He nodded. "The entire thing?" He nodded again. "But Rick, you hate poetry."
He shrugged. "Actually, this wasn't too bad. Started off kind of slow, but there were some parts I really liked. It made a lot of sense to me. This Mrs. Browning, she seems like a smart lady."
Evelyn politely refrained from pointing out that the "smart lady" had been dead for over half a century.
"Kind of reminds me of someone I know." He fiddled with the book, avoiding her gaze, and for a moment he was again the suddenly bashful young man at Hamunaptra, courting her with a pilfered toolkit.
Encouraged, Evelyn took a step closer.
"Anyhow," he continued, "there was a good one about… not loving someone just because they think the same way you do. Because those things can change."
She nodded, thinking of Algernon, with whom she'd had so much in common. They got on, as Jonathan would say, like a house on fire. She'd had tremendous respect for him as a scholar and as a person. But when he'd kissed her, while it wasn't exactly unpleasant, she often found her mind wandering, usually to the latest issue of the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.
She'd felt cruel, leading Algie on, when she knew that the fondness she felt for him was really only that of a friend. But no matter how clearly she tried to articulate this, he insisted that they could build a life together—that partnership and friendship were enough to make a start, and love would come in time. Algie was rather like a puppy: he basked in her very presence, and seemed content to live, without resentment, on whatever scraps of affection Evelyn was prepared to toss him. That really wasn't fair to either of them.
As much as she'd cared for Algie, what she had felt for him wasn't love of the type described in Sonnets From the Portuguese. Evelyn had wondered, after she'd broken the engagement, whether she was making a mistake—gambling away a stable and relatively happy future on the fragile premise that such love even existed. And she had continued to wonder, until she'd met Rick.
Evelyn didn't believe in love at first sight, but she was rapidly becoming a devotee of fortuitous infatuation—her attraction to the dashing, golden adventurer at Giza Port had led her to a sweet, exciting, altogether wonderful person, whom she had come to love.
But did he love her?
"And there was this other part," Rick was saying, "about the world's pain being like a knife, a switchblade, and how his love is the hand that closes it, and keeps her safe. I liked that a lot."
Evelyn smiled—of course he would identify with a simile involving weapons. As charmed as she was by his burgeoning literary analysis, she bristled slightly at its implication. "I'm not a little girl, Rick. I don't need you to protect me from the world."
"I don't want to."
Evelyn was quite shocked by these words, and indeed Rick seemed unsure as to whether or not he'd actually said them. "You don't?" she echoed.
"Well, no, that's not what I mean…" He passed a hand over his forehead, ran fingers through his hair, thinking. Trying to formulate. "Obviously I don't want you to get hurt, and I'd do anything to stop that from happening."
He would, and indeed he had, thought Evelyn, the wonder of it striking her anew. He'd been struck from the sky, and nearly buried beneath the sands; he had fought an unkillable army; he had stood against the mythical plagues of Egypt—and not for what now lay safely concealed in the trunk at the foot of her bed. He hadn't even argued over what share of the treasure was rightly his, because it wasn't important to him. He'd done it all for her. And now he was determined to prove his bravery once more, it seemed.
"But you're right," he continued, steadily, inexorably. Once started, the words seemed compelled to out. "You don't need me to look after you. You can do that just fine on your own… that's not the reason I don't want to let you go."
His breathing was ragged. "You know why."
She shook her head. She had the sensation that she was falling, fast, down a very long flight of stairs. "Why?" she whispered.
He spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I love you," he said, helplessly. "I want you to marry me."
For a moment, she stood, stunned into silence, staring at him. Hearing someone tell you they loved you for the first time, she reflected, was a bit like seeing them without their clothes on: you saw the person at their most vulnerable.
"Evie, I'm dying here," Rick implored, flashing her a weak smile. "Say something." He jammed his hands into his pockets, trying to hide the fact that they were trembling.
She took a deep breath, to slow the rapid hammering of her heart. "Well, yes. Of course I'll marry you." She grinned wickedly, determined to needle him just a bit. "It does seem the most logical action to take, after all—saves our having to divide up the treasure quite so soon. Although I suppose now Jonathan will insist upon a larger share…"
Foxfire flared in his eyes. "Evelyn…"
And if you will recall," she continued bombastically, "it was my suggestion in the first place that we—"
"Evelyn." The raw intensity with which he said her name nearly undid her.
"You might give me some time," she cajoled, leaning towards him ever so slightly. "After all, you've had all day to work up to it."
"You shouldn't have to work up to it. You either feel it or you don't." Having shed all his defenses at last, he was insufferably smug, using her own words to bait her.
"Give me the book," she commanded. He handed it over. She thumbed through it until she found what she was looking for, on the second-last page. "'I love thee,'" she read,
"'to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.' Shall I go on?"
"Very nice. But technically, those are Mrs. Browning's words, not yours."
What was it about a man admitting that he loved you that made him so completely insufferable afterwards? "Oh, damn Mrs. Browning, anyway," she groused.
"Don't get so upset." He grinned in a rather unpleasant manner, showing nearly all of his teeth. "It's just a book, right?"
She squealed and pitched the volume at him, but he plucked it out of the air rather handily before it could hit him in the chest.
"You throw like a girl," he quipped, tossing the book aside. It was a testament to Evelyn's preoccupation with the subject at hand that she didn't even turn her head to see where it landed. "You know that?"
Evelyn moved towards him, slipping her arms around his waist. His hand was warm against the small of her back, calluses catching against the smooth fabric of her robe. She rested her chin against his broad chest and peered up into the face that was, after even so short a time, as familiar as her own: golden skin, square jaw, devil-may-care smile, forehead framed by parentheses of tumbled, sandy hair. And those ocean eyes, calm now at last. Her handsome soldier. Her brave mercenary.
"I love you." She said it reverently, like a prayer.
He nodded, feigning nonchalance. "I know."
Before she could marshal a sufficiently cutting response, he kissed her. He had been drinking, she observed; however, it didn't seem to have affected either his judgement or his motor skills.
Evelyn's knees weakened—but the moment she began to falter, she felt herself lifted up, supported entirely in his arms. It was like those early, feverish nights in the desert: celebrating the marvel of their escape, and the even greater good fortune of having found one another at last.
When they paused for breath, Evelyn, still a bit jelly-legged, sank down onto the bed. One thought still prickled at the back of her mind: "Rick… you are coming with us, aren't you? Back to England?"
Rick dropped down beside her, his massive frame causing the soft mattress to buckle around him, so that Evelyn was compelled to lean on his shoulder. "Baby, I would follow you to the ends of the earth," he growled, giving her a particularly rakish once-over.
She laughed, swatting his arm. "I'm serious!"
"You always say that, like I'm not serious. I mean it. You say the word, and I'm there. Hell, I followed you to Hamunaptra—twice—and that was the last place I ever wanted to see again." Sitting so close to him, she was able to detect a distinct increase in the tension of his frame when he talked about the City of the Dead. She slid a comforting arm around his immense shoulders.
"Thank you for that," she whispered, and kissed him on the cheek.
He gave her a suspicious glance. "You're not going to offer to pay me for my services again, are you?"
She reddened, quite ashamed. She had said that deliberately, to cut him to the quick, and they both knew it. Worse still, there wasn't much point in averring that she would never do it again. Evelyn, despite her very best intentions, would always have the capacity to wield words as weapons—and it was against her nature to lay down arms entirely.
"We're to be married, darling," she told him cheerily, punctuating this statement with a pat on the leg. "I shall expect your services for free for now on."
He was watching her very intently; the green in his eyes was in ascendancy now. She blushed even more deeply when she realized how her words could be interpreted. Not to mention the fact that her hand was still resting on his thigh.
"Your rescue services," she amended hastily.
"Really?" he purred. "I was looking forward to providing a different kind of service, actually."
Evelyn could feel the blood pounding in her ears. She was suddenly conscious of his proximity, of the heat radiating from him in waves, and of the prickly warmth that seemed to be spreading with equal intensity through her own body, from her stomach out towards her extremities. She felt as though she were blushing from head to toe. It was hard to think, hard to breathe, with him looking at her like that.
She willed her voice to steadiness as she replied, "Oh, really, Mister O'Connell?" She gave him a particular coquettish look that had proven well nigh irresistable before now.
As expected, he was on her in a flash—but not in the way she had expected. Merciless fingers dug into her ribs, finding the most sensitive spots. She kicked and thrashed, but to no avail—his arms were broad bands of steel, his chest a block of solid stone. There was a brief struggle, but she was effectively pinned, forced to endure the ignominy of being tickled. He even took hold of her leg and attacked the sole of her bare foot.
"You—are going—to learn—to call me Rick!" he told her, in between her snorts and squeals of forced laughter.
When he had finally desisted, Evelyn propped herself up on one elbow. Rick was on his knees on the bed; she was lying, supine, beneath him. Her nightdress had ridden up, exposing her legs, one of which Rick was still holding at the ankle. She felt pleasantly light-headed; both of them were flushed and breathing quickly. It was a most improper and rather precarious position for a modest young lady to be in.
Evelyn didn't mind.
That afternoon at the hotel in Aswan had opened her mind to some very appealing possibilities. It had started off so innocently, when Rick had asked her for a bit of assistance cleaning some of his cuts and scrapes. She could hardly have refused, and so she'd invited him into her room, where he'd stretched out on her bed while she had set about disinfecting the wounds on his lower back with alcohol. Eventually, he had removed his shirt, and she had found herself quite undone by the perfect symmetry of muscle and sinew and bronzed skin. His back was smooth, soft—belying his tough exterior and callused hands—and deliciously warm. She'd been unable to stop touching him, forgetting her original task entirely, and when he had turned around to ask what she was doing back there, she hadn't bothered to explain, but simply pounced. It was actually Rick who'd finally been compelled to point out the time of day, the unlocked door, and the fact that Jonathan might return any second, and so they had reluctantly left off just as things were beginning to get interesting.
Now, they were to be married. Evelyn wasn't a religious woman, she didn't care a rap about the opinions of others, and she'd never been one to adhere to tradition for tradition's sake. Besides, heaven only knew how much time alone they were likely to have in the near future, with Jonathan always underfoot.
She was nothing if not eminently practical.
Rick, on the other hand, was looking distinctly uncomfortable. "I should probably go," he said, making not the slightest effort to do anything of the sort. He didn't even let go of her leg—on the contrary, his hand slid upward, to her calf.
Privately, Evelyn had always felt that her shapely legs were one of her more attractive features, although it was rare that she was afforded an opportunity to show them off. She was pleased to note that Rick was not immune to their charms. She was reminded of the night before, when he had touched her ankle under the table, so gently, and she had suddenly been reminded of the possibilities of those strong hands.
"You probably ought to go," she agreed, volubly, reaching up to brush the hair out of his eyes. When he still didn't move, she trailed her hand down the back of his neck and around his collar, then slowly undid the top two buttons and slipped her hand inside his shirt.
His eyes widened, and his fingers contracted on her leg. "What—what are you doing?" The question rumbled up from the very deepest part of his register.
She smiled devilishly, then sat up enough that she was able to kiss the perfect juncture of his neck and collarbone. She could smell his spicy aftershave, and taste the salty tang of his sweat. It was heavenly. She continued to do this while unbuttoning the rest of his shirt. Rick, meanwhile, seemed rooted to the spot.
"What are you doing?" he repeated, a high note of panic in his voice now.
Evelyn sighed. It ought to have been perfectly obvious what she was doing. She clearly wasn't going about it properly. She removed herself a bit to look him in the face. "Don't you like that?" she asked.
He opened his eyes and looked down at her, dazed. "Um… yeah, honey, I like that a lot."
"Oh, good." She smiled, and tried to pull him down towards her, but he remained frozen in place.
"I really should go."
Patiently, as if she might be a bit backward, he explained, "Evelyn, I want you."
"And now you have me." She flashed him a wicked grin. "Do you think I intend to save myself for my wedding night? As Jonathan would say, do you also think I wear petticoats and ride my bicycle sidesaddle?"
Rick looked pained. "I really wish you wouldn't mention your brother at a time like this."
"Duly noted. Now. Where were we?"
She crooked a finger, encouragingly, and he moved towards her as if spellbound.
The instant before their lips made contact, she cried, "Wait!"
He groaned feelingly. "I knew it. Dammit, Evelyn—!" He bit back the rest of the statement, which was undoubtedly not complimentary.
"No, no, I mean…" She arched her back—bringing their bodies into even closer contact, and causing him to emit a strangled noise—then reached beneath her and pulled out a familiar object. "I was lying on Mrs. Browning," she explained hastily, settling herself more comfortably. "There. That's better."
It apparently took a moment for her words to penetrate the haze. "So… you want to…?"
"Yes. Please," she added, mostly out of force of habit.
Rick shifted onto his side, facing her, deliciously dishevelled. The narrowness of the bed was such that they were still in quite close proximity, but all she wanted to do was get closer still. She felt intoxicated, in a way that was far more pleasing than her brief foray into debauchery had been. She dove towards him, but he held her at arm's length. "I'm tired of us misunderstanding each other," he said, speaking very slowly and carefully. "I want to be clear that we're both talking about the same thing here. What exactly do you want?"
Evelyn was not a woman given to giggling, but mirth bubbled up inside her from a seemingly bottomless spring, until she simply couldn't help it. "How very sensible of you!" she declared. He'd been completely honest with her about his feelings; she could do no less. "All right. I would like you, Rick," she pointed at him, "to make love to me, Evelyn." She indicated herself. "Tonight. Preferrably soon." She pressed herself against him, in a way that left very little room for doubt as to her eagerness to follow through on her stated intentions. "Right now would be delightful, actually."
"Think you're pretty smart, don't you?" He caressed the curve of her back, then gently slid his hand down to her hip. Such a light, gentle touch, but so full of promise.
"So I've been told… Rick?" she murmured.
"I believe it's time to stop talking."
Rick awakened to a cool, dark room. Experience and training had made him a habitually light sleeper; this time, however, his slumber was so profound that it actually took him a moment to come fully into consciousness. He tried to hazard a guess at the time, but his internal clock was completely out of whack. A few more seconds followed before he remembered why he was on a boat, why he was in Evelyn's room instead of his own, and why he was naked. He smiled. Once again, she'd managed to surprise him.
Now that his eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness, he was able to pick out a few of the finer details of the pale form stretched out beside him. Evelyn lay on her stomach with her arms folded under the pillow, waves of dark hair spilling down her back. In concession either to modesty or to the damp night air, she had tucked the sheet around and under herself. Her breathing was slow, deep, hypnotically regular.
He'd actually done it. He'd told her how he felt, she'd agreed to marry him—and to go to bed with him, for that matter—and the world hadn't come to an end after all.
Rick O'Connell had survived thus far by sticking to a plan, and by not thinking too hard about whether his decisions were going to make him happy. His experience had taught him that life was made up of moments; most were not to be enjoyed, but simply to be endured, each serving only as a vehicle to the next. What few moments of pleasure he'd been able to snatch had usually been found either at the bottom of a bottle, or in the perfumed embrace of a woman who barely knew his name, and none of them had ever lasted long. His overarching goal was just to keep moving. And before he knew it, he was standing on a scaffold, with nowhere to go but down, and he had run out of moments completely.
When Evelyn had bargained for his life, he'd joined her and Jonathan on their crazy trip with few thoughts in his mind other than escaping the noose. At best, he figured, it was probably only a stay of execution—only a matter of time before the City of the Dead claimed him as its latest resident.
But something strange had happened. It was as though, by saving his life, Evelyn had somehow created him anew—carved him whole, out of Egypt's pristine limestone: his past had washed away entirely, and only the future remained, rolling out endlessly before him like the blue Nile.
When they had left the city behind them at last, he'd found that, for the first time in his life, he wanted nothing more than for time to stand still. He hadn't thought it was possible to be any happier than he was out in the desert, watching the sun rise over golden sands, with his sweetheart in his arms.
Incredibly, he'd been wrong.
Now, with the prospect of being married to Evelyn, Rick found himself in the entirely new mindset of actually looking forward to what was to come. Once they had figured out how best to dispose of the treasure, he and Evelyn would be independently wealthy; there was nothing to stop them from doing whatever they wanted. They could travel—it was his desire to see the world that had prompted him to join the Legion, and now that he could do it without having to kill anyone, so much the better. Or they could work on a dig—he didn't know much about archaeology, but he enjoyed physical work and he learned quickly, especially when Evelyn was his teacher. The expression of pure joy on her face when she was hard at work solving a mystery was far more rewarding to him than the discovery of any treasure.
Truthfully, he didn't much care what they did, as long as they were together. Once he'd managed to get over his trepidation, he found that giving in to his love for Evelyn was as natural as breathing.
He knew he should let her sleep, but he couldn't resist tracing the supple curve of her arm with his fingertips. She stirred, but didn't wake until he leaned closer and kissed her bare shoulder. She was beautiful when she slept, of course, but what made her truly breathtaking was the animation of the form, the expression of the person within.
Evelyn's breathing quickened. Her eyelids fluttered open. "Darling," she murmured throatily.
He smiled. "Hi there."
She stretched, languorously, then made a delicious little moue of her mouth. "Ohhh. I'm sore," she complained, so earnestly that he couldn't help but snicker. She stuck her tongue out at him. "Go on then, have a good laugh. Very gentlemanly of you, considering that it's entirely your fault. You could have warned me—you are quite a large man, you know," she observed, quite matter-of-factly, her gaze darting briefly to the area in question.
"I don't recall hearing any objections at the time." He'd actually been a bit surprised at how well she'd borne up, given that it was her first time. Sometimes she was tougher than anyone, even Rick, gave her credit for.
"I couldn't object. Your tongue was in my mouth," she reminded him. This new-found insouciance of hers was incredibly sexy.
He responded in kind: "Had to put it somewhere. Someone told me to stop talking."
Rick expected either a witty comeback or a rebuke, but instead she closed her eyes, a dreamy smile stealing over her face. "Yes," she sighed. "That is true."
He gathered her close, and she snuggled comfortably into the crook of his arm, hooking one foot possessively across his legs. He patted her on the bottom. "If you tell me where it hurts," he told her, mockingly solicitous, "I promise to kiss it all better…"
Evelyn ignored him, which was probably just as well, since Rick found himself suddenly preoccupied by the mental images his offer had conjured up. He wondered how she would react if… but there was time for that.
"You're so warm," she murmured, slipping an arm around his waist. "You're like a big hot water bottle. Did you know?"
Rick surmised, correctly, that now was not the time to mention that he'd been told as much by more than one former paramour. He opted instead for, "Yeah, I was aware."
"I hope I didn't wake you?"
"Why, do you snore?" he inquired innocently. While she'd been relatively quiet that night, he knew through previous observation that she was more than capable of producing a racket comparable to a rusty dragsaw.
A guilty silence. "'Like a bull elephant' is Jonathan's rather picturesque description," she admitted. Rick privately agreed with this assessment.
He gave her a squeeze. "I thought we agreed not to talk about your brother," he reminded her.
"Mm," was Evelyn's noncommittal response.
"Anyhow, you weren't keeping me awake. I was just thinking."
"Don't sound so shocked," he teased.
She didn't reply, but he could feel her smiling against his chest.
He continued, "I was thinking about where you might like to go on your honeymoon. I thought maybe Greece—we could lie on a white sand beach. Go swimming. See some ruins—I know how much you like that kind of stuff."
"That sounds delightful."
"Of course, that was before I found out about the snoring. Sorry. Engagement's off."
"Back to your own room, then," retorted Evelyn, yawning.
Neither of them said anything for a while after that. He could feel himself gradually drifting off, his breathing slowing to match hers. He knew that it was probably not a good idea for him to be seen sneaking out of her cabin at daybreak, but it seemed such a shame to risk waking her up again…
"France," she murmured.
He was instantly awake. "Huh?"
"The south of France. The Mediterranean. They have white sand there, and swimming. I… I've had my fill of ruins for now."
She shuddered, and hugged Rick so tightly that he felt a familiar sharp twinge in the possibly-broken rib. "Easy there," he cautioned. "I'm a little sore, myself."
She was trembling, but not with cold; her face, pressed into his chest, felt hot. And damp.
"What's wrong, honey?" He stroked her hair, cradling her.
"I had a nightmare earlier," she sighed. "You warned me… I should have listened. I should never have read from that silly book."
Rick could have kicked himself. He should have known this was coming—he'd been through it often enough himself: the survivor's burden. "You didn't open that chest, Evelyn," he reminded her. "And you didn't curse that Imhotep guy in the first place. All you did was read a few words in a book. You had no idea what would happen. Not only that, but I… I could have stopped you. But I didn't." When Evelyn had opened the book, he hadn't been thinking about mummies or curses or anything of the kind: he'd been breathing in the scent of her hair, revelling in the nearness of her. Wishing she would forget about this whole book thing and look at him the way she had the night before. Wondering whether she remembered his first name.
"I keep going over it in my mind and thinking, if only I'd done something different…"
"Trust me on this one: you have to look at all of the things that went right, not the ones that didn't. I mean, we stopped a pretty bad guy from becoming an invincible walking plague. We even found your fancy gold book."
"Bloody Jonathan," she said, so miserably that Rick had to resist the urge to laugh. He suspected that it would be a very, very long time before Evelyn forgave her brother for the unspeakable loss of the Book of Amun Ra.
"I'll be honest, Evelyn… I don't regret anything that happened out there. Well, okay, maybe one thing."
"Getting you so drunk that you passed out before I could really plant one on you."
She gave a derisive snort. "If I recall correctly, I gave you plenty of opportunity for 'planting' before I fell asleep. Not a seed was sown."
"You didn't 'fall asleep,' kiddo," he corrected. "You were out. Down for the count. TKO. I was there, remember? I had to carry you to bed." He politely omitted the detail of her little face-plant directly into his lap.
"Nevertheless. The fact remains that I threw myself at you all evening, and you never once took advantage."
"You were drunk! I'm not that kind of guy, I play fair."
"Oh, codswallop! I didn't start out the evening drunk—you encouraged me. And it was painfully obvious that I fancied you. I was constantly creating opportunities for us to be alone together—sending Jonathan on silly meaningless errands while I hung about, batting my eyelashes at you so hard I thought I was going to blow out your torch! And not once did you take even the slightest notice."
"I noticed." I'm not blind, he wanted to add, but avoided evoking the image of Burns' grotesque injury. Instead, he settled for, "I'm not made of stone."
Of course he had noticed; it would have been difficult to miss the way she always sat close enough that their legs brushed against each other, or the way her hands lingered on his every time she passed him something, or the smouldering looks she gave him whenever he so much as glanced in her direction. Not to mention the dress she'd bought—a far cry from her usual style, and not exactly practical for grubbing around in tombs all day. A woman wore a dress like that because she wanted to be noticed, and given that the only other man in the party was her brother, it didn't take a genius to figure out who was supposed to be doing the noticing.
"Then, for goodness' sake, why didn't you do anything?" she demanded.
For the first time, he realized how confusing it must have been for her. After all, he wasn't particularly skilled at hiding his feelings, either—he usually didn't give a damn if people knew what he was thinking. She must have been able to tell he was sweet on her—everyone around them had picked up on it pretty quickly. But she kept putting herself out there, and he kept passing up all those little opportunities to get closer to her. What was she supposed to think?
"I told you earlier, I was scared."
"Of you. I knew I was falling for you, and it made me want to run away. Before one of us got hurt."
"Meaning, me." He could hear the irritation in her voice.
"Meaning me," he retorted. "I was looking out for number one. I was happy on my own before you came along—I didn't give a damn about anyone and no one gave a damn about me, and I got along just fine. Evelyn, you… you're the first person I've ever loved," he confessed.
"Ever?" she breathed.
"Well… yeah. I mean, I told you what it's been like for me: I was too young to know my real parents, and I never got that close with my adopted family. I never had a steady girl, and—unlike you—I never had an older brother to look out for me."
"Well, now you have both. You're stuck with us," she told him cheerfully. "Jonathan and I. We come as a set, you see." Her tone was light, but it was quite clear that she meant every word of it—that to her, being married was about more than the two of them alone together; it was about her welcoming Rick into their little family.
Her brother, for good or ill, was the most important person in her life; what she was offering Rick was the opportunity to be held in equal estimation. It wasn't about choosing England and Jonathan or Egypt and Rick—it never had been. Evelyn intended to have both.
In a flash of insight, Rick was able to picture their future as Evelyn did: Jonathan, in morning dress, giving Evelyn away at their wedding; Jonathan, at their table for Christmas dinner, toasting the season; Jonathan, proudly standing as godfather at their first child's christening.
Outwardly, Rick grimaced. "It's not too late to call this whole thing off, you know."
"You say that, but secretly you're quite pleased." There she went, reading his mind again. It was spooky. "You love us. Both of us," she taunted.
It was true, even though he would never admit it; he did have a certain amount of brotherly affection for the chatty little fellow, regardless of the circumstances of their first meeting. After all, it was hard not to feel kindly disposed towards the inadvertent matchmaker who had brought Evelyn into his life. Whatever Jonathan might have lifted from his pockets, it was Evelyn who had ultimately stolen his most closely guarded possession: his heart.
"I can only marry one of you," Rick pointed out, "and Jonathan would look like hell in a white dress."
She laughed musically. "I can't wear a white dress!" she protested. "You've ruined me."
"Oh, yes. Quite thoroughly, as I believe I mentioned earlier."
"Um, if I recall correctly, you were the one seducing me with poetry and begging me to make love to you."
Her only response was an affronted noise.
"Well," he deliberated, mockingly, "since you're already ruined and all… why don't you come here and wreck me up a little?"
"No, thank you," was the austere reply. "I told you, I'm sore." She turned away from him with an air of finality, but didn't object when his arm slid around her waist.
"I promise I'll be gentle." He brushed his lips against her shoulder, very softly. She didn't stir. "Only the lightest of touches," he breathed against her skin, and felt her shiver involuntarily. "Doesn't that feel nice?" She had goosebumps. When he lifted her hair and pressed a kiss into the back of her neck, she gave an inarticulate whimper of affirmation. "Still sore?" he inquired hopefully.
"Yes." She rolled over, casting off the sheet in a fluid, graceful motion. "But I don't care."
Powerless with desire, she was entirely at his mercy—but only for a moment. Captivated by her, he hesitated, and was lost. As with every subject that captured her interest, Evelyn was a fast learner: she reached down and grasped him. He groaned loudly, feeling his eyes roll back in his head.
"You'll go slowly this time," she told him. It was not a request.
Waves of emotion and physical need crashed together inside him, distilling at last into a single statement: "I love you."
She laughed knowingly. "Of course you do. We'll see how you feel an hour from now, when you've had your wicked way with me."
"Stop talking," he implored.
Miraculously, she did.