For the first time in a thousand years, sunlight warmed the walls of the palace, and Linley Talbot-Martin was the first person to see it. The sleeves of her damp linen blouse were rolled up to her elbows. It may have once been white, but now carried the permanent yellow tinge of sweat. She hadn’t bathed in days, water being too scarce to waste, but if she were filthy and sweaty, so was everyone else.
“Come down, Papa!” she called through the opening above her head. “You must see this!”
A man lowered himself down the length of rope. He too was dirt caked, and red sand dusted his white beard, turning it almost pink. Bedford Talbot-Martin was one of the world’s foremost archaeologists. That same red sand had worked its way into his heart, and now flowed through the veins of his only child. If he was the face of their operation, Linley was it’s driving force.
“I’ll have someone send word to Schoville,” she said, studying the faded paint of the intricately carved walls. “He’ll be sorry he missed all this. But first, we need photographs of everything, measurements, detailed renderings…”
Linley’s mind leapt into action before the dust settled on the floor of the ruins. Members of their team spilled in through the hole of blinding light cut into the ceiling. There were archaeologists, artists, and hired laborers, as well as representatives from the French government kind enough to allow the Talbot-Martin team to carry out research deep into French territory.
While her father busied himself studying the treasure of well-preserved artifacts, Linley organized and recorded everything to be boxed up and taken back to the museum. If they worked as efficiently as possible, they might be on their way by the next afternoon. It was better to move quickly, staying one step ahead of bandits and looters who always threatened the success of a find such as this.
“Ne pas toucher, s’il vous plait!” Linley called out to one of the government officials as he reached out to run his fingers along a delicate piece of pottery.
The man jerked his hand back.
Mr. Talbot-Martin turned around to face his daughter. “Were you talking to me, Button?”
“No, Papa,” she said. “To one of the Frenchmen.”
Her father nodded and resumed his work, leaving Linley to hers. At twenty, she had been part of the team longer than anyone. She may not have had an Oxford education, but she received all her learning in the field. To the men, she was more than just their employer’s daughter, she was an equal in terms of knowledge and experience.
Linley dusted her hands on her khaki jodhpurs and hoisted herself through the opening in the ceiling. Topside, miles of red sand and rock rolled onto hills and dipped into valleys before melting with the harsh blue of the sky. It was hard to believe the palace once sat above all this, and that a thousand years of shifting sands almost erased it from the earth.
The tents of their camp glared white in the sun, and Linley shielded her eyes until they adjusted to the brightness. She listened to the men speaking in Arabic, the pawing of the camels tied into their corral, and the squeaking of the pulleys as each container of precious ancient pottery was hoisted from one world into another.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a sunburned face smiling down at her.
“We were right all along, Linley!” he said. “Everyone said it couldn’t be done, but by God, we’ve done it!”
The man was Archie Gwynne, an archaeologist who studied under Flinders Petrie before joining her father’s team. Although he was in his early forties, she regarded him as one of her dearest friends.
“Before we celebrate, I have to send word to Schoville,” she said. “He’ll need to prepare everything at Rabat or none of this will ever make it to the museum.” Linley raked her brown hair from across her forehead as a fresh barrage of sand pelted down on her. “Can you spare a Berber and a camel?”
“I suppose so.”
She walked to the nearest tent and pulled back the flap.
Archie followed her inside, watching as she fished through a chest for paper and a pen. “I’m afraid you’ll also need to ask him for more money.”
Linley’s head jerked up. “More money? Are we running short?”
“We’re always running short.”
“After word of all this gets out, we’ll be turning investors away.”
Archie put his hands in his dusty trouser pockets, and rocked back and forth on his heels. “Schoville will have to write them for an advance or I’m afraid we’ll all be sitting home on our laurels without a job.”
“You won’t be out of a job, Archie. Any team would love to snatch you up,” Linley said as she scrawled the letter. “Same goes for Reginald, too. And, of course, Papa could take a position teaching at a university.”
“And where would that leave you?”
“Me? I suppose I’d go with Papa.” When she finished the letter, she handed it over to him. “Dispatch a rider. There’s no need to have him return, we’ll be in Rabat before he can make it back.”
Archie nodded and was out the door. Alone for the first time since she woke up, Linley took a moment to catch her breath. The temperature inside the tent was stifling, but its canvas walls shaded her from the relentless sun. In less than forty-eight hours there would be no trace of the excavation except the reference markers placed by the French government. The Talbot-Martins and their caravan would be on their way back to civilization—at least until their next expedition.
Hopefully there would be another expedition. She recalled the disheartening conversation with Archie. What would they do if there was no more money? Linley had never known any other life but this one. She never went to school, although she was better educated than many English girls her age. She never played with other children, trading hoops and dolls for picks and shovels. She also never had a mother, which probably had a great deal to do with all that.
Mrs. Talbot-Martin died before Linley could remember, and with nowhere else to place his young daughter, her father brought her along with him to India. From there they traveled throughout the world.
In truth, Linley never thought about her mother. And she didn’t know why she thought of her now, especially with so much work to be done. She was no good to anyone standing around with her head in the clouds.
Satisfied that Schoville would receive her letter in plenty of time, Linley walked out of the tent to join her father and the rest of the team. But instead of finding them all hard at work, she emerged to drawn weapons and angry shouts.
Someone grabbed her by the arm.
It was her father. “Button, it appears we have been duped,” he said. “The two French government representatives have just informed me that we will be going back to Rabat empty handed.”
“I’m afraid the artifacts will be taken to Paris by French archaeologists who are on their way as we speak. So gather your things, they have spared us the camels.”
Linley, her father, and the rest of their team watched as the French archaeologists confiscated months of work and research, as well as all the catalogues taken that day. The containers were loaded into the backs of automobiles. Without so much as a nod, the French left with everything the Talbot-Martin team had worked so hard to find.
“Bloody hell!” Archie said, slamming his wide-brimmed leather hat onto the sand. “Bloody, bloody hell!”
Mr. Talbot-Martin patted him on his shoulder. “You can curse all you like, but it will not get our things back.”
“Do you realize what we have lost?” he cried. “This will set us back months!”
“Indeed,” the old man said. “But there isn’t much we can do about it now. No doubt they consider this their revenge for the Capitulation of Alexandria—though why they expect us to pay for the sins of our forefathers, I cannot understand…”
Ignoring them both, Linley walked over to one of the camels and dragged its head down. The rest of its body followed, allowing her to climb onto its back. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on spending another night in this desert,” she said as the camel lumbered back onto its feet. “If we hurry, we can make it back to Rabat in time for dinner.”
The team had nothing else to lose, and the prospect of a hot bath and a good meal seemed to be the only beacon of hope in an otherwise disastrous day. They steered their camels in the direction of the Atlantic, following the tracks of the French motorcars back to the capital.
It was well after dark when a distress flare lit up the purple-black sky only a few hundred yards over the sand hills. Linley and the others shielded their eyes from the bright white glare, watching as it burst, fizzled, and finally sputtered down to earth around them.
“What do you make of that?” Archie asked, pulling his camel to a stop.
The Talbot-Martin team paused to listen, straining to hear anything at all over the braying of their camels. In the distance, the unmistakable pop of gunfire caused the animals to fuss and paw. Linley held tight to the reins of her mount as it twisted around and threatened to bolt.
Camels were dodgy, unpredictable creatures. Sometimes they hardly reacted at all, other times—like that exact moment—they became ill mannered and angry. It roared and tossed its head. It showed its horrid yellow teeth and nipped at the flank of its nearest neighbor.
Two more gunshots snapped through the air. Linley’s camel jerked its ears toward the sound, stopping its ruckus long enough for her to get the beast under control.
Breathless, she turned to her father.
“Probably the French,” he explained. “Lord knows what they’ve come upon at this hour.”
The four camels pawed the sand, impatient as their riders contemplated whether to investigate the situation further. On one hand, it was dangerous to dally in the desert for too long. It would be hours still before they reached Rabat, and, should they be waylaid, the team did not have enough supplies to make it through the night.
But on the other hand, it would be sweet revenge indeed to watch the French get what they deserved.
The team urged their camels into a gallop, racing toward the origin of the signal. More gunshots popped in the distance. Another flare lit up the sky. The Talbot-Martin team reached the crest of a dune and pulled their animals to a skidding stop.
Below, the despicable French tangled with a band of angry Berbers. One of the automobiles lay overturned. The other was surrounded by a circle of camels and kaftan-clad riders. Terrified archaeologists clung to the crates of catalogues and artifacts while outnumbered soldiers tried in vain to defend them.
The French were no match for the Berbers—not in the desert, not in the dark.
The Talbot-Martin team slid from their camels and dropped to the sand. They lay on their bellies, just out of sight, but with a perfect view of the commotion below.
Linley shivered in her thin linen blouse. The desert was not a hospitable place, night or day. A girl could freeze to death just as easily as she could get heatstroke.
She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering.
A few feet away, Archie and her father whispered to each other. Reginald Bourne, the third member of their team, slowly loaded his pistol. The camels snorted. The wind whipped up little currents of sand, stinging their eyes.
No one noticed the figure creeping toward them in the darkness.
Something reached out and grabbed Linley’s ankle. She started to kick. She stifled the urge to scream and flipped over onto her back to face the attacker, her hand reaching for the knife stashed in her boot.
“It’s me,” the shadow hissed. “Schoville.”
Linley blew out the breath she’d been holding. “Christ!”
He flopped down beside her. “I couldn’t get your attention. God knows I couldn’t make any noise. If those Frogs knew we were here, we’d be in for it, to be sure.”
She blinked at him. “What?”
“Those Frenchies,” he said, pointing down the hill. “If they caught us.”
Linley followed the direction of his finger, all the way to the besieged archeologists and the band of attackers. “Don’t tell me we are behind this.”
“Your Berber messenger ran into some very curious Frenchmen on his way to town,” he explained. “I had quite a hunch about them, and it turns out I was right.”
A misplaced gunshot rang out and a bullet thumped into the sand only a few feet from where the team lay hidden. Linley, Schoville, and the others recoiled, covering their faces.
When the moment of danger passed, he continued, “I employed a caravan of Berbers and staged an ambush. If the French government suspects the natives, they won’t come after us.”
Linley grinned. Sometimes Schoville could be brilliant. One had to be, in their line of work. The Talbot-Martin team rarely resorted to violence or bribery. They carried weapons, but only as means of protection, and never seemed to carry enough money. Instead, they relied on their ability to outsmart their adversaries. Always staying one step ahead of the game. Always slightly out of reach.
From across the sand, her father frowned. As happy as he was to get his crates back, tangling with those double-crossing French was much too risky. “The last thing we need is more trouble from the French government.”
“Don’t worry,” Schoville said, watching the Berbers disappear into a cloud of dust. “Our re-stolen crates will be on the first steamer back to England. The evidence will be long gone before anyone suspects it was us.”
A LOVE THAT NEVER TIRES is available at the following retailers: