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LYNX TO THE PHARAOH
Table of Contents
Excerpt – The Spurned Viscountess
Excerpt – My Estranged Lover
Other Works by Shelley
Sethmet Khalil comes from a line of shapeshifters who protect the pharaoh from tomb robbers. It’s a sacred duty handed down from father to son—a duty he’s determined to carry out successfully so his family retain the shapeshifter powers they cherish. Failure means death at the hands of a deadly curse.
Desperate to escape the strictures of mourning, Charlotte Webster travels to Egypt with her stepbrother. The freedom of Patria Oasis is heady after the stuffy rules of the London season. It’s full of temptation. Sethmet, their guide, is handsome and sparks forbidden desire in Charlotte. Risking censure, she embarks on a passionate affair, secret rendezvous full of lingering caresses and explosive pleasure.
Charlotte pleases both man and feline, but she’s with the men Sethmet suspects are hunting for the pharaoh’s treasure. If Charlotte is involved, he can’t protect her from the pharaoh’s curse and she’ll die with the others. Love, danger and betrayal battle beneath the blood-red desert moon as the lovers steal moments together and fate works its wiles.
Patria Oasis, Egypt, 1835
A blood-red moon shone over the desert, tinting the rocks and sand scarlet. An omen, the locals whispered as they bolted for their camel-skin tents, dropped the flaps and hid from the fearsome sight.
Sethmet Khalil stared into the night, sensing the upheaval in the air with every particle of his tense body. Muscles twitched beneath his skin, itching for the freedom of a nocturnal run across the dunes at the edge of the oasis. It was his normal routine, but tonight he resisted, testing the air. Listening.
Evil whispered from the shadows. Menace thrummed in the air, making the night birds jabber uneasily on their roosts. Sethmet sensed danger too but had no intention of running to hide like the villagers. His was a secret duty, sworn in blood many centuries ago and passed through the generations from father to son. A sacred promise to the pharaoh to protect the tombs of the cat.
The wind picked up, sending scents of exotic spices and perfumes swirling through the air. The papyrus reeds on the edge of the lake rattled, warning of the approaching storm.
With a loose-boned gait Sethmet walked from the oasis, past the caravanserai—the inn where travelers stayed—and past the pens where restless camels stood, hobbled for the night. When the faint glow of lamps and candlelight faded, he stripped off his boots and stockings, coat, silk cravat, shirt and finally his trousers. He stuffed them under a rock he’d used in the past and stood for an instant to let the chill of the rising wind caress his skin. His broad chest rose and fell and he let the cat take him, reveling in the pleasure-pain of transformation from man to beast. Bones lengthened, stretched. Hands converted to clawed paws and a fine brownish-red fur formed on his skin. Sethmet dropped to all fours, his large fur-tufted ears twitching with pleasure and the buzz of intensified senses.
As a caracal, he tested the air. Along with the storm and the myriad scents from the oasis, the campfire smoke of the English tourists rode on the wind. Sethmet had visited them already in his position as family head, hiring out his guiding services to keep an eye on them—a case where his years of education in England helped. Amusement flicked through his mind as he recalled his loud protests about leaving Egypt. Now with a few years of added maturity, he recognized the benefits to him and his family.
A burst of wind whistled over the hill. A sandstorm fast approached, allowing the bloody moon to play peekaboo behind the clouds. The air sizzled with tension, communicating unease and something out of tune with nature. He scanned the vicinity for anything suspicious. He listened. Nothing. Apart from the coming storm, all seemed normal.
Sethmet’s slow trot hastened into a full-out run, just for the pleasure of feeling his muscles work and the heady rush of air blowing through his coat. He rounded the end of a rolling dune, his sharp eyes picking up the Englishmen’s camp at the base of the next sand hill. The tents rattled, the white canvas billowing with the building storm. The flicker of a lamp caught his attention, bobbing away from the glowing embers of the campfire. Sethmet checked the air, testing for danger again and paused in surprise. Subtle perfume—flowers of the lilac. Woman.
Sethmet sat on his haunches, blinking while he considered this new development. It was unusual for Englishwomen to come to his family’s oasis because it was so far from the big towns, several long days of riding camels that tested the temperament of a strong man let alone a delicate female. Perhaps she came with one of the local men. A wife or a lover. He hadn’t seen nor smelled evidence of her in the camp during his earlier visit. Not that the Englishmen had welcomed him with open arms.
He knew they were treasure hunters, intent on raping the pharaoh’s tomb. The greedy expression in their eyes when they thought no one noticed gave them away. No, they hadn’t made him welcome. They’d conducted business, looking down their sharp English noses at him. Sethmet blinked, thoughts of the treasure hunters dissolving as the light moved farther away. The steady retreat piqued his curiosity.
On the unprotected side of the dunes, the wind tugged his fur, blew particles of sand in his eyes, bringing discomfort. He never considered ending his pursuit because something inside urged him to keep following the light. A flash of white petticoat told him he’d almost caught the woman. His heart beat harder, faster.
Would she take fright at seeing him? Mayhap. Shifting wasn’t an option, not with an Englishwoman present. Nudity made them nervous. They didn’t even look at their own bodies. No, shifting wouldn’t work.
His ears flicked back and forth while he determined a course of action. Even if she had a link to the treasure hunters, the ones intent on finding the lost tombs, the approaching storm presented a danger to her. What was her protector thinking?
A powerful gust of wind, the dull roar of the swirling sands and the startled squeak from the Englishwoman decided him. Sethmet padded up to her swaying form, intent on herding her to safety.
Long ebony hair streamed out behind her while black skirts blew up and outward, baring her legs and white frilly undergarments. Her seductive scent filled his nostrils—flowers and woman. His heart jumped, astonishing both beast and man. The urge to shift and claim her sprang into his mind, shivered the length of his body. Suddenly, he wanted to sink into the warm softness of a woman. This woman. The need to touch her velvet skin beat an urgent drum inside his head. A soft snarl erupted in protest from his feline side.
The woman heard, even with the wail of the wind. She whirled, her blue eyes widening in astonishment.
But not fear, Sethmet discovered with a sense of pride. He knew then this woman would be a worthy consort for the man who claimed her. Sethmet wanted to be that man, envy bolting through him because he suspected it was too late.
Charlotte froze, staring at the big cat standing a foot from her. Its golden eyes fixed on her, unblinking and solemn.
“I hope you’re not hungry,” she whispered, not taking her eyes from the caracal. What had her stepbrother called them? That’s right. Desert lynx. The cat prowled closer, and she trembled, unsure of whether to stay or run for cover.
In the flickering light of her lamp, the cat seemed big—huge—and heavily muscled. Its pointed ears appeared long because of the black tufts at the tips. Golden eyes gleamed with intelligence. Was it hungry? Or curious? Either way, uneasiness skittered through her veins, and she cursed her stupidity in thinking it was safe to walk alone at night.
Her husband would have given her a sound scolding and shut her in her room for days of penance and meals of bread and water.
Charlotte squared her shoulders. Since her husband’s death, she’d made decisions on her own, be they good or bad, facing the consequences of her actions. She clutched her easel and paint box a fraction tighter. Perhaps painting by moonlight hadn’t been such a good idea.
Charlotte scanned the sky, frowning before she glanced back at the still cat. Imagine capturing the beauty of the beast on canvas. Her gaze traced the muscular lines of the animal before clouds obscured the red moon and the scant light faded. A sigh escaped, the deteriorating weather defeating her urgent need to capture the scene in a painting.
“I…ah…think I’ll go back to camp. But I’ve no idea why I’m telling you.” Charlotte sidled past the cat, and at the last moment, when she was almost clear, it moved to block her retreat. Her heart thudded. Was it her imagination or had the creature opened its mouth wider? She tried to keep each breath even and attempted to step around the caracal again, despite her knocking knees. “Good kitty. I don’t have time to play now. Off you go. Back to your friends.”
The cat’s top lip curled upward and a hiss, scarcely louder than the wind, trembled in the air between them. She froze then backed up without taking her gaze from the cat’s golden eyes. “My, what sharp teeth you have. Very…ah…white.” So, she’d go back to camp the long way. She had her lamp. And she had all night.
The wind rose, a strong gust sending her stumbling, her skirts flying up around her waist. Embarrassed, she fought to push them back and dropped the lamp. It rolled end over end, toppling down a slope with a loud clang. The flame flickered and blew out, leaving deep, pulsing darkness.
A cry of dismay escaped her. Charlotte bit into her bottom lip. Run or not run? Before she could decide, something brushed her hip.
Her mouth dried, and she fought to draw a shaky breath into her starved lungs. A sharp nudge against her thigh pushed her away from camp in the opposite direction. Off balance, her arms flailed. Her painting materials fell from her grasp and dropped to the ground. Charlotte scrambled to retrieve them, but another abrupt push moved her three unladylike steps before she could dig her heels into the shifting sands.
“My paints,” she protested. “I have no more.”
A brusque growl stopped further complaints. Her life was more important than her drawing materials. Another impatient shove forced her to move, but it was in the slow, uneasy gait of a blind person.
“How can I see where I’m walking?” Charlotte muttered, coming to an immediate halt. The cat seemed to understand her difficulty and stepped so close to her she could have run her hand along the animal’s back without stretching. Her fingers slid across the soft fur and curled into the cat’s scruff for better balance. It surprised her she wanted to stroke the beast, to feel the sensual slide of fur beneath her fingertips. Her heart jolted with uneven beats and her breasts peaked beneath the stiff stays she wore. Astonished by the unusual reaction, she missed her step and tripped over a partially embedded rock.
She hit the sand with a thump before sitting to rub her leg. How could she see where she was going when she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face?
The cat paused and prodded her with its head. Seconds later, she felt a damp sweep over her cheek. It was licking her, and the sensation was rough but not unpleasant. The wind howled, an eerie sound that raised the hairs at the back of her neck. The cat growled, following this with an insistent butt on her upper arm.
Charlotte pushed to her feet. The sand stirred, blowing in pounding waves like the ocean. It roared, a ferocious beast in a foul temper. A shiver crawled across her body at the fanciful thought and she worried about being in the open.
The cat stalked through the night without hesitation. Charlotte followed, wondering if she was wise to place her trust in a beast that could eat her for dinner as quick as look at her. She hesitated, her steps faltering and almost turned back, to go with the survival instinct shouting she was a fool. Then the ground under her stout boots changed from sand to rock. Footing became easier. Unerringly, the cat moved through the darkness before stopping. The cat’s low growl sounded as if it wanted her to do something.
“Kitty, I wish I could understand you,” she murmured. “And I have to say you’re very bossy.”
The cat rubbed its head against her hip, giving a soft purr before shunting her toward a solid wall of rock. Charlotte held out her hand to stop herself from pitching forward and thumping her head. Her palm caught the edge of an overhanging rock then nothing.
“A cave,” she said, not trying to hide her amazement. “Good, kitty.” Charlotte stumbled into the dark cavern, trusting the cat now that it had shown her to a refuge from the storm.
Outside, the wind wailed. Sand whipped through the air and into the mouth of the cave. Charlotte moved with caution, making her way deeper into the dark hole in the rock. Once she was out of the range of the wind and sand, she sank to the ground, settling on a sandy patch with her back against the rock wall. The cat sat beside her, a welcome warmth in the damp cave. Bone-deep weariness seeped through Charlotte. Her eyelids drooped after her adventure. Aware of her vulnerability, she fought her tiredness, but the soft breathing of the cat at her side lulled her senses and she fell asleep.
Sethmet guarded the woman throughout the night, content to doze at her side. When the storm passed, he stood and stretched. He studied the sleeping beauty, intrigued by her presence with the English. His top lip curled at the thought. Tomb robbers disguised as tourists. His gut instinct had never failed him before. His gaze drifted across her peaceful face. It was difficult to believe a woman with the innocent face of an angel could endanger his family with her greed. A part of the deception? Or the innocent she appeared?
Time would tell.
Sethmet would protect the tombs from robbers. He refused to fail in his duty to his family and the pharaoh. Shapeshifting was part of their heritage. A gift they treasured and did not intend to give up without a fight. If the woman was involved, he’d find out and deal with the matter. Meanwhile, he’d get to know her better. He ignored the jolt of pleasure to his cock, trying to tamp down the desire flooding his body, his mind. This was business, not pleasure.
Decision made, Sethmet prowled to the mouth of the cave and tested the air. With nothing to alarm him, he moved swiftly into the gloomy dawn. He paused at the spot where the woman had dropped her paints, but they had disappeared with the gusts of wind and swirling sand. No matter. His sisters had paints and books they could spare. He moved on, a silent sentry in the early dawn as he stopped to survey the tourists’ camp.
Camped at the base of a dune, the English had escaped serious damage—a supply tent slanted at a precarious angle and some of the items left out overnight strewed the surrounding desert.
Sethmet loped back to his clothes. Acute anticipation pulsed through his mind, the like of which he’d never experienced. Though eager to return to the woman, he didn’t forget the caution that had become second nature. He paused by the rock where he’d left his clothes. Nothing disturbed the still of the storm-washed dawn, so he shifted from caracal to man. He pulled on his clothes with a sense of purpose and haste. The chore of protecting the pharaoh’s treasures and ensuring his comfort in the afterlife had taken an interesting turn. Sethmet’s mouth lifted in a slow, feral grin. If the woman wasn’t under the protection of another man, he could use that.
Gain inside information and learn the English intentions. She’d sensed the simmering attraction between them even if she hadn’t understood the implications, that they were compatible, should they want to take the relationship further.
His smile eased into intense and carnal. He prayed she was unclaimed by another male. A surge of heat shot straight to his groin. He’d teach her to call him kitty.
Sethmet ghosted through the oasis, his silent, rapid footfalls eating the distance to the villa on the hills at the opposite side of the oasis—the home his grandfather had built for his English bride. The mournful bray of a donkey broke the silence, reminding him it wouldn’t be long before the locals stirred. As he hurried through the village, past the marketplace, the bathhouse and the gracious columns that decorated the square, a trace of satisfaction and pride filled him. The oasis of Patria was prosperous, the inhabitants happy yet hardworking. The gods and the pharaoh had been generous.
A sleepy servant let him into the villa. Halfway across the marble floor, he paused and turned. “Please organize food and drink to take with me when I leave again.”
The servant nodded, more alert now, and hurried off to carry out the instructions, his leather sandals slapping out his retreat.
Restless, he wandered the villa before seeking his mother to take his mind off the tension simmering inside him.
“Son, you are up early.”
“Mama.” Sethmet smiled and bent to kiss both wrinkled cheeks before leaning against a pedestal, almost toppling the bust of the pharaoh standing on top.
“Take care, my son.” The wooden rocking chair his father had purchased in Cairo squeaked when she set it in motion. “You are restless this morning.”
Sethmet’s eyes widened then narrowed. He’d tried hard to hide his impatience to go to the woman. His mother knew him too well, and despite her partial blindness, she’d sensed his turbulent emotions. The push and pull as he grappled to balance desire for the flesh and execution of his duties.
“Do not forswear love in the pursuit of justice, my son.”
A powerful shudder racked his body, and startled, he studied his mother’s face.
The red moon.
And now his mother speaking of love and justice.
Mayhap, the English woman was a personal omen, sent to try his devotion to the pharaoh. A test to see if he’d succumb to temptation.
Once the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon, Sethmet gathered his basket of food in the kitchen and strode from the villa. The meeting would appear casual, yet it would be anything but since he’d planned everything while she slept.
Sethmet had remained in the English style of clothing rather than his traditional galabiyya