Home > The Sheikh's Scheming Sweetheart

The Sheikh's Scheming Sweetheart
Author: Holly Rayner

Chapter One

 

 

The wind screamed over the dunes of the Nubian Desert, whipping stinging sand into the eyes of the expedition party. Men struggled with panicking horses and recalcitrant camels as they rushed to pack up.

A single woman stood apart, standing at the top of the dune, her auburn hair catching the last of the sunlight as it was choked out by the encroaching sandstorm. Petite and academic, she stood with her back to the others, ignoring the rush of people preparing to leave. She scanned the orange sky with tireless, green-blue eyes, even as the wind caught the white linen of her skirt and tried to carry her off.

An older man, round and heavily mustached, struggled up the sand to her side.

“Vanessa, we have to go!”

The man had to shout to be heard over the wind, one hand holding his hat to his head, the other reaching for his companion.

“The porters are ready to leave without us!”

“Just a few minutes longer!” Vanessa begged, scanning the horizon with desperation. “The wind may reveal something!”

“If there was anything to be revealed, we would have seen it already!” the older man shouted back, taking her arm. “It’s time to face the facts, girl. There is nothing here!”

“The tomb has to be here somewhere!” Vanessa said, taking a map from her bag to squint at it through the obscuring sand, searching frantically for some last-minute revelation. “I’ve spent years on this, Abraham! I know it’s here!”

A sudden gust of wind snatched the map out of her hand and whipped it away across the sand. Vanessa shouted in surprise and stumbled after it, but it had vanished into the storm within a blink. Abraham caught her and pulled her back towards the horses.

“I’m sorry, Vanessa,” he said with genuine sympathy. “The tomb of Amanirenas is out there somewhere, but it’s not here. It’s time to go home, girl.”

Vanessa hung on to him as they made their way towards the horses, crushed.

“This was supposed to be it, Abraham,” she said. “All that work! This was meant to be my moment.”

“Hold it together, girl,” Abraham said with a sigh, patting her shoulder. “You’re young yet, and the search for Amanirenas has caused greater disappointments than this. Once you’re my age, such failures will hardly even faze you. You’ll go out expecting them, and so you’ll never be disappointed when all there is to find is dust and sand…”

 

Three years later, Vanessa sat on the edge of the fountain in the center of the Low Plaza at Columbia University, listening to a young man pontificate at length on the relative virtues of the different actors who had played his favorite character in movies. She was twenty-seven and working towards her doctorate in Middle Eastern Archeology, and she still couldn’t understand how people had conversations like this.

She stared up at the rounded bronze centerpiece of the fountain, surrounded by a prismatic halo as the late spring sunlight shimmered on the water which sprayed directly from its tip.

She supposed this was what she got for dating a film studies major. She just wasn’t that interested in movies. It was a basic incompatibility that she really should have considered before agreeing to go to dinner with him. She sighed and glanced at her watch, wondering if she could end this early and return to the library.

“You aren’t listening.”

Vanessa looked up as Sean’s tone changed abruptly. He was frowning at her, clearly hurt.

“I’m sorry,” she said at once, knowing it was pointless to pretend she’d been paying attention. “As soon as you start talking about actors, I just tune out.”

“You know, popular movies are generally a pretty safe topic to talk about with anyone,” he said with a frustrated sigh. “Except you. If there isn’t a million-year-old pyramid involved, you’re just not interested.”

“You’re not much better,” Vanessa said with a frown. “I can’t mention anything about my work without you launching into a sermon about some action movie that botches the history it attempts to include.”

“Only because if I didn’t, you’d spend the next two hours describing the royal family of Sheba all the way back to the flood,” Sean pointed out. “At least I’m capable of talking about something besides movies. I haven’t had a single conversation with you that wasn’t about your work.”

“It’s important to me,” Vanessa said defensively.

“It’s all that’s important to you,” he replied, exasperated. “I’m sorry, Vanessa. I just don’t think this is going to work out.”

Sean stood up and Vanessa felt a sudden rush of regret.

“Wait,” she said. “I can—we can—”

“Listen,” Sean said. “You’re a great person. You’re gorgeous and I don’t need to tell you that you’re brilliant. But I don’t think you’re ever going to love anyone more than your work. And I really don’t feel like competing with a bunch of thousand-year-old mummies. Goodbye, Vanessa.”

He turned and left, and Vanessa dropped back down onto the rim of the fountain, feeling her spirits sink down into her shoes. It was hardly the first time a relationship had ended this way.

After a long moment, she stood up, shaking off the clinging mantle of moroseness. Who cared if she wasn’t dating anyone? Her work was what really mattered. She’d happily die alone if it meant the realization of her dream of being a successful and renowned archeologist. She tried to tell herself that she believed this as she gathered her things and marched, chin high, back towards the library.

She hadn’t been exactly excited for this date anyway, to be perfectly honest. She was caught up in her work and taking her thoughts off of it for even a moment was a struggle. Her thesis had been consuming all of her time and energy lately.

It was on the same topic as all of her independent research. Kandake Amanirenas had fascinated her since she’d first started looking for her specialty. She had been planning to enter Egyptology when she’d glanced over Near Eastern Anthropology and discovered Amanirenas. Warrior queen of the Kushite, she’d stopped the Roman advance into Africa cold, and brokered a peace that had lasted hundreds of years.

The image of this woman, one-eyed and ferocious, gold gleaming on her dark skin, leading her armies into what must have seemed an impossible battle, only to snatch victory against all odds, had captured Vanessa’s imagination entirely. And when she’d learned that the system of hieroglyphs used during Amanirenas’s reign had never been translated and thus the tomb of Amanirenas herself never located, she’d been seized with the desire to do this magnificent empress justice.

She was known only through Greek and Roman writings about their encounters with the Kushite. Vanessa wanted to see Amanirenas described in her own words, in her own tongue. Her life, unaltered by frequently less-than glowing Roman opinions. Vanessa wanted to know her without others’ biases.

But, at the moment, she had a more mundane task to perform. She’d commandeered two tables in a quiet back corner of the university library conveniently close to the Egyptology section but out of the way enough that her books wouldn’t be re-shelved nor her papers moved. Amidst the towers of reference materials and notes, she settled down, back to the letter she’d been writing before she stepped away for the disappointing date.

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