In her rush to reach the ringing telephone, Astrid Logan nearly sprawled on the suitcases she'd left in the apartment hallway. She grabbed the receiver on the seventh ring. A deep voice spoke her name and her heart thudded in her chest. "Clive?" Had something happened to her father? Was there a problem at Antiquities?
"Been trying to reach you for hours. Where have you been?"
Astrid sucked in a breath. "Dad knows how to reach me at school." She sank to the floor. "What's wrong with him?"
"He's had a stroke."
"How is he?"
"Doctor believes he'll recover completely, but he'll need time in rehab."
"When did this happen and where?"
"This morning at the gallery. We were discussing the placement of several new pieces. He groaned and collapsed. Ambulance arrived maybe fifteen minutes later."
Astrid frowned. What was he holding back? Her father liked and trusted his younger assistant, but for no reason she could discover, Clive had always made her edgy. "Did they do tests?"
"CAT Scan. Then they gave him some kind of special IV. Guess this will make you change your summer plans."
"Why should it?" Clive had been her father's assistant at the gallery for a year and a half. He knew she spent every summer at Antiquities.
"Then you're really not coming."
"What are you talking about? I had planned to drive down tomorrow." Since she'd turned twelve, she'd spent every summer at the shop with her dad. In sixteen years, she knew as much about the shop as her father.
"Thought your dad said you wouldn't be here. Never mind. It's just ... I was going to move into his apartment."
"To keep an eye on the gallery."
Astrid frowned. That didn't make sense. The thirty-year-old playboy had an expensive co-op on the river. "Isn't there a sophisticated alarm system?"
"Alarms can be by-passed."
"Are there problems?"
"In a way. A few pieces have gone missing and your dad won't hear of calling the police."
"I see." She didn't, but once she was sure her father was recovering, she intended to check.
"When are you coming?"
"As soon as I pack the car."
"Imagine you'll arrive between five and six. I'll close the shop and meet you at the hospital."
"No need. I have keys. After I check on Dad, I'll stop by the gallery." She hung up and started to call the hospital. Why? It would be a futile gesture. They would merely confirm her father was a patient, but they wouldn't disclose the information she wanted.
She made a quick check of the nearly empty apartment. Her furniture was in storage until she found a place closer to the university where she would begin a graduate program in September.
Twenty minutes later, she'd packed the car. On the way out of town, she dropped the keys at the real estate agency and began the four-hour trip to Rockleigh, the
Hudson River village where her father lived.
During the drive, she tried not to think about her father. If she didn't dwell on her fears, they wouldn't come true. Think positive, she told herself. She recalled her father's excitement over the changes he and Clive had made at Antiquities and the enthusiasm over a new customer. What would happen to the gallery if he wasn't there? She gripped the wheel and shifted mental gears.
Astrid parked in the hospital lot and stopped at the information desk. With a visitor's pass in hand, she went to the third floor and found her father's room. The odors, the moans and cries, the bustle of activity made her feel as though she'd entered an alien land. Her job as a school nurse held none of these scenes. She paused in the doorway of the semi-private room. One bed was empty. Her father lay in the window bed.
For a moment, she stared. How had he aged so much since the last time she'd seen him? Easter had been just two and a half months ago. During their weekly phone calls, he'd sounded the way he always had. She approached the bed, checked the intravenous site and the rate and looked at the oxygen meter on the wall. Seemed fine.
He opened his eyes and tried to smile. She took his hand. He spoke, but the words were so garbled she couldn't decipher them. Tears threatened. She swallowed against the lump in her throat.
"Don't worry about Antiquities. I'll keep Clive in line. I'll have the records in order by the time you're back."
Her words seemed to give him peace. The lines around his mouth relaxed. Until the urge to cry grew too strong, she remained. "I'm going to the apartment, then the gallery. I'll be back this evening."
He mouthed a word.
"Good?" she asked.
Outside the room, she pulled a tissue from her bag and wiped her eyes. At the nurses' desk, she paused. "I'm Mr. Logan's daughter. How is he?"
A gray-haired woman looked up. "He's stable and responding to treatment. We were able to start things within hours after the stroke."
Astrid cleared her throat. "I'm a nurse." She asked a series of questions about the prognosis and course of treatment.
"You'll have to speak to his doctor."
The nurse gave Astrid a name and phone number. "Thanks."
After paying the parking fee, she drove to Antiquities and pulled onto the paved area behind the building. As she took two suitcases from the trunk, Mrs. Rayson, her father's tenant and long-time friend, stepped onto the deck. "Astrid. I'm so glad you're here. That Clive said you weren't coming this summer."
"He misunderstood Dad. Probably confused my decision to resign my position at the school and go to grad school with my summer plans. You know how Dad sometimes carries on two discussions at once."
Mrs. Rayson laughed. "How true. What happened to Lloyd this morning was dreadful. I was so scared."
"Were you there?"
The older woman nodded. "Heard him arguing with Clive so I stepped in. Saw Lloyd collapse. Called 911. That Clive just stood and stared."
"Shock." Astrid started up the steps. Would Clive have called an ambulance? She chewed on her lower lip. She couldn't let her distrust of the man color her opinions.
"How is Lloyd? I wanted to visit, but wasn't sure if he was in Intensive Care or a regular room."
"I stopped by on my way here." Astrid sighed. "He looked so old and fragile."
Sarah Rayson hugged Astrid. "He'll be fine."
"Aunt Sarah, I'll take that as a prophecy. Let me unload the car. Then I need to check the gallery."
"Come to dinner. Around six."
"I'd like that. We can go see Dad together."
Astrid opened the door and stepped into the apartment's main room. She turned on the air conditioner. The large picture window showed a view of the river. Breakfast dishes were still on the counter dividing the kitchen from the rest of the room. Stacks of books covered the couch, chairs and coffee table.
A groan escaped. Not only would she have to organize the gallery records, she'd have to make order here. She carried the suitcases to the small bedroom she used when she visited. At least the clutter hadn't invaded her space. After several trips to the car, she stepped into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face.
What had caused Dad and Clive to quarrel? They seldom disagreed. Would Clive tell her?
When she entered Antiquities, she turned a full circle. The usual disorganized appearance had vanished. The enormous room was now broken into small areas. Dividers of wood and glass separated the displays.
Clive strode toward her. The tall, blond man moved with a predatory grace. He looked like the Viking hero some of her acquaintances had dubbed him. He was handsome, but the coldness of his blue eyes made her wary. "Hello, Clive."
"You made good time. Have you seen your dad?"
"I stopped at the hospital." A sigh escaped. "I can't believe he had a stroke. He's always been so healthy."
Clive clasped her hands. "He's tough. Before long, he'll be back cluttering the place."
"Hope not. You've achieved wonders here." She tried to free her hands. He tugged her closer. "The apartment looks like a magpie's nest."
"Good description." He brushed her lips with his.
Astrid shook her head. She wanted to wipe her mouth. Would he start another pursuit this summer? "Let's stick to business. I like the arrangement of the stock."
"A suggestion from a new customer. Rich playboy type, but he has good taste. Garrett and your dad connected. Act like they've known each other for ages."
She crossed her arms on her chest. "Why were you and Dad arguing?"
He groaned. "Guess you talked to nosy Sarah. Was more like a heated discussion about displaying two new pieces he recently found. Bought this sealed box at a sale. Odd assortment."
He laughed. "Nothing bad. Mostly a collection of Victorian jewelry and these two pieces. He wanted to research them before they were offered for sale. I wanted to price them immediately. You know how hard it is to date the things we acquire."
She nodded. "So where are they?"
"Most of the jewelry is in the vault and I can't get to them."
"I--" She cut off her response. She knew the code for the vault and would see what he meant in the morning.
He took her arm. "I'll show you the two pieces I kept out and introduce you to Paula Winters. She's photographing a number of our best pieces for a catalogue we're launching."
"Another suggestion from Dad's new friend?"
"In a way." He entered the Egyptian area. "Astrid, Paula Winters. Astrid is Lloyd's daughter. She's here for the summer, then it's back upstate."
Astrid didn't contradict him. Her plans weren't his business.
The woman turned. "Teacher?" She gazed at Clive.
"School nurse." Astrid read admiration in Paula's eyes. Did Clive return the interest? He usually went for petite and curvy. Paula was slim, almost boyish. The blunt cut of her shoulder-length auburn hair reminded Astrid of styles she'd seen on ancient Egyptian women.
Paula's crooked grin warmed Astrid. "Glad to finally meet you. Your dad talks a lot about you."
"Don't believe everything he's said. What are you photographing today?" Astrid asked.
"Starting with the Egyptian collection. The new pieces are stunning. Clive thinks it's a good idea to have a visual record of the things in the shop."
Astrid turned to Clive. "Then there is a problem."
"I told you several pieces were missing."
"I hope not, but this has been going on since right after Easter."
Astrid frowned. Why hadn't Dad mentioned the problem? She edged toward the stand where a necklace and crown were displayed on a black velvet cloth. Where had she seen these pieces before? The necklace resembled a wide collar. Semi-circles of a pale gold metal were inlaid with lapis. From the last row, carnelians dangled. The headband of the same metal had flowers of inlaid lapis with carnelian centers.
"Are these the items you and Dad argued about?"
Clive nodded. "He wanted to put them in the vault."
"Why have you displayed them?"
"One, I can't open the vault and two, they're too attractive to hide."
Astrid brushed a finger over one of the dangles. Sadness washed over her. As though under a spell, she lifted the necklace. Waves of dizziness rocked her.
* * * *
Seshat stood at the entrance to her workroom built against the wall of the villa. She stared into the garden. Though chaos ruled the Two Lands, in this house at a distance from
only echoes of the troubles were heard. How fortunate that her father, Nomarch
Sehetep, had distanced himself from the politics of both halves of the divided
She heard her younger sister giggle and watched her run toward the workroom. "What have you done now?"
"Spied on Father," Tiy said.
Seshat shook her head. Tiy hovered between childhood and womanhood. She delighted in mischief. Seshat left the doorway and reached for the tallies of the recent harvest.
"Don't you want to know what I heard and what I saw?" Tiy's warm brown eyes sparkled with mischief.
"We have guests. From
Oh, Seshat, they are the most handsome men I have ever seen. They seek father's
support. One of them wants the Double Crown. Maybe he will choose you as his
wife and ignore Nefru."
Seshat sighed. If she were chosen, Nefru, daughter of their father's dead first wife, would be furious. Though Seshat's mother had been a princess of a past dynasty, Nefru denied the claim. Seshat sighed. Anyone seeking Sehetep's support would choose the oldest daughter. Since no sons had been born to the house, Nefru's spouse would claim the nome when Sehetep left this world.
"We're to eat the evening meal with them," Tiy said. "Nefru stamped her foot when she heard. When these men see you, they won't look at her."
Seshat shook her head. That would bring spiteful attacks from her sister. Besides, Seshat had no desire to leave her father. Wasn't she his right hand and his star to comfort his last days? She lifted a quill and began to record the number of baskets of harvested grain.
Before she finished the tally, Bastet, her aging maidservant, entered. "Come, child. You must make ready for the evening."
Seshat put her quill and papyrus aside and followed Bastet to the bathing room. After washing, her skin was rubbed with scented oil. Bastet combed and braided her hair. Not for Seshat the shaved head and the hot, heavy wig. The maid applied kohl to make Seshat's gray eyes appear more luminous and darker.
"What will you wear?" Bastet asked. "These men have come from
Thebes. You don't want to
appear a country girl."
Seshat chose a robe of fine linen that covered her body from beneath her breasts to her ankles. The broad straps formed a vee as they crossed her shoulders. For jewelry, she selected the necklace her mother had left her. The electrum semi-circles of the collar were inlaid with lapis. Carnelians dangled above her bare breasts.
"Will you wear the crown?"
Seshat shook her head. She was sure Nefru would wear her finest linen tunic and adorn herself with jewels. Her wig would be ornamented as well. A subtle touch is best, Seshat thought.
She and Tiy entered the large hall where their father, sister and the guests waited. Sehetep smiled. "Daughters, come and meet our visitors. Seshat, how like your mother you look. She was the loveliest flower in my garden. You are indeed the star to delight my last days."
Nefru's lips thinned. She glared. Rings glittered on her fingers. Her armbands were studded with gems. The nipples of her heavy breasts had been colored with henna.
Seshat ignored her sister's displeasure. She kept her eyelids lowered as her father drew her toward the guests. "Mermeshu, Commander of the Army, and Intef, his advisor, my daughters, Seshat and Tiy."
Seshat glanced at the men. Both wore kilts and tunics. A jeweled pectoral gleamed against the pale linen of Mermeshu's tunic. The men were taller than her father. Mermeshu had the arms and shoulders of an archer. Though of slighter build, Intef seemed fit. She shuddered. His eyes had the coldness of a serpent.
Mermeshu's dark eyes captured her gaze. As though to see her better, he smiled and stepped back. Her skin felt hot. A throbbing low in her belly brought an urge to touch and be touched by him. Her nipples tightened. His smile broadened.
In that instant, Seshat knew she desired this man for all eternity. Hathor, goddess of love, bring him to my side. Fill him with desire for only me. Let him see my beauty and my grace. Bring him to me.
Nefru clapped her hands. The serving maids set the individual tables before Sehetep's chair and the stools for the others. Since this was the main meal of the day, course followed course. Beef, lamb and goose were served with lentils, carrots and spinach. Wine and beer were lavishly offered. The meal ended with melons, figs and dates. Though Seshat ate, she tasted nothing.
Mermeshu and Intef spoke of the Hyksos who controlled the north and of the troubles in the south. Many men competed for the Double Crown, but only one could wear it. Mermeshu had come to ask for men, supplies and coins. He believed with the army's backing, he could win the crown and drive the usurpers from the land.
Bits of conversation entered Seshat's awareness. For twenty years, the land had been torn asunder by men who wished to be pharaoh. Then came the Hyksos with their chariots and armies. Only a united
Egypt could repel them.
Seshat had no care for tales of war or warnings of battles to come. Her body thrummed with a desire she didn't fully understand.
When the meal ended, Nefru signaled the slaves to remove the tables. "Mermeshu and Intef, would you like to stroll in the gardens?"
The men rose to follow her. Seshat paused beside her father's chair. "Do you wish me to play the harp?" Though she wanted to join the others, her first duty was to him.
"Go to the garden." He patted her cheek. "Star of my last days, you have your mother's heart."
Seshat kissed him on the forehead and strolled into the garden. Nefru walked with a hand on each man's arm. Tiy was nowhere to be seen. Had Nefru sent her away? The trio paused beside the pool.
"Alas, my father has no sons or male kindred," Nefru said. "The husband I choose will be fortunate. All this will be his."
"And your sisters?" Mermeshu asked. "Have they no share in your father's wealth?"
Nefru snorted. "Daughters of concubines have no standing. They will be grateful for what I give them."
Intef laughed. "Don't you mean what your husband gives them?"
Nefru smiled. "He will be so entranced with me, he will do as I wish."
Seshat joined them. Anger sizzled through her veins. "Nefru, you can insult me but not my mother. She was wife to our father, duly witnessed in the temple."
Nefru giggled. "I'd forgotten. She was only second wife and brought nothing of value to the marriage."
"She was a princess."
"So she said."
Seshat bit her lip. Quarreling with Nefru before their guests was in poor taste. She looked up. Mermeshu grinned. Heat seared her core. He stepped away from Nefru and took Seshat's arm.
"Come and enjoy the beauty of the garden," he said. "The night and the company are too lovely for heated words. Your father said the garden was your realm."
"And the fields and herds," Nefru said. "She acts like she's our father's son."
"And for that reason, I must leave," Seshat said. "'Tis harvest time and I have much to do."
Mermeshu leaned toward her. "Pleasant dreams." He lightly caressed her arm.