Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Announcements


I'm a guest author at www.ashleyladd.blogspot.com Thursday, January 31st. Please join us!

Our (4 other authors and myself) anthology, One Touch Beyond (see cover) will be released at www.cerridwenpress.com February 21st.

Kim Cox

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne by Maureen McMahon


Fourth sample chapter from Enchanted Holidays - New Years - Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne by Maureen McMahon

Chapter One

What house more stately hath there been

Or can be, than is Man? to whose creation

All things are in decay?

--- George Herbert

"Man"

I hadn't expected the house to be so imposing. When Holly Purcell, my friend since childhood, asked me to accompany her to the remote New Hampshire property her grandmother had willed her, I'd expected a quaint little holiday cottage. What loomed before us, as my little blue car slid up the icy drive between twin rows of gnarled, naked willows, was something much more impressive—and much more sinister.

Gripped by unkempt tangles of dormant vines and shrubbery and oblivious to the encroaching forest, the house thrust a multi-peaked roof, complete with stately turret, into a gray, wintry sky. Its windows observed our approach with dull disinterest. I couldn't help but shudder.

"God! You didn't tell me it was so old and spooky," I said.

"Didn't I?" Holly smiled. "Well, it should be—spooky, that is. It's supposed to be haunted."

"Oh, right," I scoffed. "This is beginning to sound like one of those slumber parties where we used to try to scare each other to death. Sorry, Holly, but I'm not so gullible anymore."

"Cross my heart," she said, making the appropriate sign, her expression sincere. "Gran loved to tell us the tale of Miss Clementine Kreen, the daughter of the original owners. She lived here back at the start of the century. She was supposedly jilted by her lover on New Year's Eve and ran off into a blizzard, never to be heard from again."

I stopped the car in front of a ramshackle shed that once must have served as a garage, but was now leaning precariously to one side under the pressure of a huge pine tree that had grown up much too closely. Heavy pine boughs lay across the sagging roof. Holly looked at me, her beautiful, cornflower blue eyes twinkling beneath thick lashes. "They say her spirit still roams the woods—searching."

"Searching for what?" I cocked a skeptical brow, unable to prevent my journalistic curiosity from snapping up the bait.

Holly shrugged. "Some say she's still searching for her lover. Others say she's searching for shelter from the blizzard she was lost in. But Gran always believed there was something else. No one knows for sure."

I turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition. "Well, it seems like a mammoth waste of time to me. Maybe while we're here, we can give her a hand and

99 Maureen McMahon

help her find whatever it is she's looking for." I had meant the words to be sarcastic, but Holly was delighted.

"That's just what I'd hoped you'd say!" she said. "I knew if anyone would understand, you would."

"Well…" I began, but she was out of the car and trudging up the path toward the house so quickly that my words were lost and I was forced to run to catch up.

She waited at the foot of the front porch steps. "We'll get the luggage later," she said. "First, I'll show you around. It's positively gorgeous—but needs a lot of work."

I nodded, puffing small white clouds after my brief exertion. The structure's decay and neglect was more apparent close-up. The weatherboards were badly in need of painting and some of the fascia was loose or missing altogether. An old broken porch swing hung askew, its chains rusted stiff. Pine needles and old brittle leaves littered the porch floor.

"Does anyone look after the place?" I asked, glad there was only a dusting of snow on the ground. It was already December twenty-nine and so far, it had been a relatively mild winter. While I had hoped for a traditional white Christmas, I was relieved we'd been spared the inconvenience of traveling through heavy snow.

"Lyle asked Brent Atherton to keep an eye on things," she said. "Brent is a neighbor—he and his granddad live just over there." She pointed off into the woods to our left.

I nodded. I didn't know Brent Atherton or his grandfather, but Lyle was Holly's older brother who lived in Boston, a good four-hour drive away. The house was left to them both, but I suspected that Holly was more enthused by the bequest. Lyle already lived a life of luxury, with a glamorous wife and a high-paying real estate business. He'd have little use for a dilapidated old homestead set on a remote lake in upper New Hampshire. Holly, on the other hand, lived modestly in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, trying to make a living from her art. She was an excellent artist, but work was scarce and often didn't pay well.

"So, come on!" Holly said, producing a set of keys. "Let me give you the guided tour before the others arrive."

"What others?" I asked, surprised.

She smiled mischievously. "Why, Lyle and Clare, Armando, who's bringing up my car and, I hope, Peter."

"Peter?" I echoed.

She dimpled at my expression. "Yes, silly, your Peter. Lyle thought it would be fun to have us all together again. Since Peter's bank handles the trust account for the estate, we can combine business with pleasure. But I'm not sure if or when he can make it."

I scowled, disturbed by the sudden lurch in the pit of my stomach at the mention of Peter Mansfield's name. We'd been inseparable during our college days—even came close to making a permanent commitment—but stubbornness and youth contrived

100 Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne

against us and, after graduation, we went our separate ways. We still kept in touch, but now his work as a partner and financial advisor at his father's bank and my job as a journalist for a prestigious travel magazine, left little opportunity to rekindle old sparks.

It had been pure luck that my New Year's holidays coincided with Holly's invitation to come with her to her grandmother's estate. I had visualized just her and me toasting in the new year in front of a cozy fire, reminiscing about our life growing up in Marblehead, a quaint, but well-to-do, suburb of Boston. I was naturally taken aback when she dropped her bombshell.

"So, you're still trying to play at being the matchmaker, eh?" I griped. "Will you ever give it up?"

She shook her head, unperturbed. "Probably not," she said. "Especially not where you and Peter are concerned." She pushed a stray lock of silky golden hair back from her face and met my glare without flinching, her petal lips set in a stubborn moue. "You know, Stacey, men like Peter Mansfield don't grow on trees. And everyone who ever knew you knows you two are meant to be together. Why won't you just accept fate and live happily ever after?"

"I'll accept nothing of the kind," I said haughtily. "What Peter and I had was wonderful, I'll admit, but we've both changed."

"Yes," she said pointedly, "now you're even more suited to each other."

I opened my mouth to retort, but she didn't give me a chance. Climbing the porch steps, she inserted a key into the lock and pushed the front door open. "But let's not argue," she said. "Peter may not be able to make it anyway. He wasn't sure if he could get time off—so there's no point making a fuss. Won't you please step this way, Miss Christian?" She made an exaggerated sweeping bow and I had to smile.

"Yes, ma'am." I saluted briskly and stepped past her into the dim interior of the house. There was no point arguing with Holly once she made up her mind. Secretly, I wasn't averse to seeing Peter Mansfield again—if only for auld lang syne.

* * * * *

Despite the ancient wallpaper, threadbare carpets and rustic plumbing, the house seemed comfortable enough. The front door opened onto a hallway that ran the length of the house. A set of narrow stairs covered by an ancient paisley runner hugged the right wall of the hallway, then made a left turn from a small landing to complete its rise to the second floor. It seemed there were doors everywhere, many opened into closets or cupboards filled to the brim with products of a lifetime of hoarding. Holly's grandmother had apparently parted with very little in her eighty-six years.

The kitchen was at the back of the house. Originally, it would've been exceptionally small, but someone in recent years had possessed the foresight to modernize and enlarge it. Now, there was room for an oak table surrounded by six matching chairs and a large hutch filled with china and crystal. Double-glazed windows framed a small backyard that gently sloped to the frozen expanse of Lake Catawah beyond. The lake

101 Maureen McMahon

was not large by any means, but large enough to provide a refreshing swim in the summer and good ice fishing in the winter.

"Did you bring your skates?" Holly asked.

"No," I sighed. "Though I practically pulled my parents' basement apart to find them. In any case, I don't think they would've fit anymore."

"Well, I'm sure Gran will have some around here that'll fit you," Holly said. "I know she always kept quite a few pairs—as well as boots and gloves for winter and swimsuits and sandals for summer. Whenever we came to visit, we forgot something. But no matter what it was, Gran always had a replacement." Her voice trailed off into a squeaky sob and I put my arms around her and hugged her, feeling her shoulders tremble as she let pent-up tears fall silently.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "I've been so thoughtless. I didn't even consider all the memories you must be dealing with."

"It's okay," she said. She gave me a quick, tight hug in return, then pulled away, snatching a tissue from a box on a nearby shelf and wiping her eyes. "Gran would hate to think I was crying over her."

I nodded. I had met Holly's grandmother only twice, but both times she struck me as a strong, no-nonsense woman who wouldn't stand for tears.

"Come on," Holly said, her moment of weakness past. "Let's go get the bags and I'll show you your room. I've put you right next to Peter—if he comes, that is." She winked with exaggerated innuendo.

But seeing the warning look in my eye, she squealed with laughter and made for the front door at a run. I followed, happy to see her naturally vivacious nature restored.

* * * * *

My room was one of four on the second floor—two bedrooms, a bathroom and what appeared to be a sitting room. I couldn't be sure of this, though, since the furnishings were draped with dust covers.

I was lucky to have a room of my own. It was modest in size and somewhat stark in comparison to the other rooms in the house, most of which were filled with a hodgepodge of furniture, paintings, photographs and bric-a-brac. The wallpaper was a faded yellow floral and the rug was old and slightly musty, but welcome, considering the cold hardwood floor underneath.

The single bed sagged slightly in the middle, but was made up with crisp white sheets, fluffy blankets and an exquisite, hand-sewn quilt.

A small closet contained a few old coats. Holly had pushed these to the back to make room for my things. Against one wall was a mahogany chest of drawers, full except for the top two drawers that she'd haphazardly emptied into a cardboard box and also shoved to the back of the closet. There was a matching mahogany bedside

102 Ghosts of Auld Lang Syne

table, sporting a lace doily and a rather extravagant lamp, the base of which was a statue of Aphrodite holding aloft a bulb, covered with a yellow, lace-edged shade.

The window next to the bed looked out over the kitchen to the lake and surrounding forest. I gazed out, mesmerized by the sunset colors tinting the frost-tipped trees and casting multicolored fingers across the thin covering of snow. I could just make out another house at the far end of the lake, set against the steep wooded slopes that rose protectively on all sides. But the only real sign anyone else inhabited the area was a thin stream of smoke rising from some hidden chimney in the woods to my right. The scene was lovely and peaceful, but at the same time, lonely and forbidding.

I turned from the window and rummaged through one of my cases for my camera. I wasn't a great photographer, but I'd learned to appreciate the artistic value of good lighting from Arthur Wong, my magazine's resident photographer. Finding the apparatus, I snapped a couple of cursory pictures through the window as the sun set. I intended to be more vigilant at keeping visual records of my holidays and trips. I'd realized sadly that I'd kept few pictures of my halcyon days at college and I was determined not to make the same mistake with the rest of my life.

There was a cursory knock at the door and Holly poked her head in. "How're you settling in? Do you need anything?"

I shook my head. "No. I think I'm okay, thanks. But come in and keep me company while I unpack."

She complied happily, settling herself on the bed and running a reverent hand over the quilt. "You know, Gran made a quilt for every bed in this house. They're all different—all with unique themes. This one is the holiday quilt. You see? Here's a patch with a Christmas tree and another with a decorated egg motif. There's Valentine's Day, Washington's birthday… Look, here's one for Groundhog Day! But I don't know what this one is for."

I went over to look at what she indicated. It was a patch depicting an old man with a long beard, holding a scroll. "That's Father Time," I said. "He often represents the new year—the passing of time. Out with the old and in with the new."

Holly frowned. "Well, he doesn't look very festive," she said.

I laughed. "No. But that's what the new year is all about—you really never know what it'll hold. You can only hope to put the past to rest and move on to whatever the future has in store."

She cocked her head and weighed my words. Then she shrugged. "Well, I sure wish I knew what the future held in store for me." She sighed and I sat down on the bed next to her.

"What about you and Armando? Aren't you happy with him?"

She smiled. "Oh, sure. Armando's fun and romantic and sweet…but he's not going to be here for much longer." At my questioning look, she explained. "He's only here from Peru for a year. His working holiday visa runs out at the end of January."

103 Maureen McMahon

"I see," I said slowly. "But…if you love each other…"

Holly scoffed. "No, nothing like that. We're deeply infatuated, but it's not love. We both know that."

I hadn't met Armando Perez yet, but Holly had told me a bit about him. They'd met at an art exhibit in Boston. He was an artist himself, working at the Boston Art Museum during his visit. They had their art in common and Holly insisted that he had "looks to die for". Because he had no relatives in the U.S. and she couldn't stand the thought of anyone spending the holidays alone, she'd invited him to join us at the lake for New Year's.

"Well," I said, patting her hand sympathetically, "you never know what the future holds."

"I suppose," she said. "And as Scarlett would say, 'Tomorrow is another day.'"

We laughed.

"So, when will the rest be arriving?" I asked.

She glanced at her watch and frowned. "Well, Armando said he'd be down tomorrow morning and Lyle and Clare said they'd be here tomorrow afternoon sometime. Who knows with them! And Peter—well, like I said, if he can make it, he'll make it whenever."

I glanced at my own watch. It was nearing six p.m. and already nearly dark. "What do you say we go find some dinner?" I said. "We may have to go shopping tomorrow. Do you know where the nearest supermarket is?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "It's not too far. We're off the beaten track, but not totally cut off. I brought some food along, but I'll definitely have to stock up to feed everyone. And we have to have champagne for New Year's Eve and ham and turkey…"

"Whoa!" I cried in mock horror. "I hope you know what you're getting into! You do know that my culinary skills are nonexistent?"

She laughed. "Don't worry, I like to cook. But we'll take it day by day. No need to go overboard."

"Good," I said. "Let's go down and see what's available for dinner tonight. I'm starved!"

She agreed and together we headed for the kitchen. But just before I shut the door, I glanced back at the quilt on my bed and the patch with Father Time and felt a tiny pang of regret for all the months since I'd last seen Peter Mansfield.

(c) 2008 Maureen McMahon- Do not reproduce in any form without the permission of the author/owner.

If you like this sample chapter, you can read the rest and 5 other stories by purchasing a copy of ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS, available from Cerridwen Press http://www.cerridwenpress.com in both electronic and print.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Curse of Osiris by Elaine Hopper


Third sample chapter from Enchanted Holidays - New Years - Curse of Osiris by Elaine Hopper



Chapter One

The turn of the new millennium ~ the real new millennium

"If you want to live, you'll come with me now." Zane Ryan's penetrating golden gaze intensified on Alexis Hart as he thrust his hand out to her.

Alexis Hart had tried every trick, every remedy she could find to erase the infidel standing in front of her from her heart. As easily as he'd breezed into her life, like a desert sandstorm, he'd stormed out. And for what? Money!

Ha! The American rat didn't deserve her love. Furious with her weak heart, she spat on the floor.
She never believed him when he said she was too young to marry, to take to his homeland, the birthplace of her biological parents. In her adoptive family's clan, she was already an old maid four years ago. She was an anachronism now.

Oh, she could have, should have married. Her adoptive father had fielded many offers for her hand. By now he could be many camels richer, but she couldn't get over the American.

" And I should believe you? All your ever cared about was your precious treasure." She stared at the cowboy's dusty hat and boots, so reminiscent of the movies depicting America's Old West. Squinting in the glare from the setting sun, she jabbed him in the chest, not caring if her adoptive mother was gasping from her impudence around the corner. "Why should I believe you?" A terrible thought struck her and she jabbed him with more force, wishing she was impaling his heart. Perhaps that would finally purge her helplessness when it came to this man. "Unless you're being paid in precious gems and gold to cart me off to who knows where."
The cords in Zane's sinewy neck popped but otherwise, he showed no sign of emotion.

The cowboy just stood stoic in that daring American manner that so infuriated her, so attracted her. Hating to show even a hint of the old love that hadn't been enough to hold him to her four years ago, she anchored her fists on her hips, jutted up her chin and stared him square in the eye.

"This isn't about us." He herded her to the far corner of the ornate room, so that the potted palm hid them from view of the others surely peeking. He swept off his grimy hat and ran his unsteady fingers through his mussed sandy-brown hair. Curses rolled off his lips. "I know you and I have history and we'll deal with that later, but for now, just hear me out and let your head rule. A lot of lives are at stake."

6 Curse of Osiris

Omar, her foster father, joined them. His face gray, his eyes rheumy, he took her hand between his and implored, "Listen to him, daughter. He speaks truth."

"Nay, I refuse to leave you, Papa! Especially not with this infidel." With a swish of her long skirt, she turned and addressed herself to her foster father, wishing to be done with Ryan, wishing her heart would let her.

Despite the rippling anger coursing through her at the sight of the man who had broken her heart four years before, she gazed transfixed at his outstretched hand from beneath her veiled lashes. She thanked Allah she wore the traditional burqa to veil her expression. It was no longer a boy's hand but a man's hand, sinewy with a whipcord strength that could easily crush her smaller, daintier hand. Dark hair curled over the tanned knuckles and the clean nails were clipped neatly short. Yet the calloused pads of his fingers told her that he was still as rugged as he had always been.

Her foster father ushered her out of hearing distance of the cowboy and then spoke softly so only she could hear. "Allah knows the mind and the heart. Ryan is a good man sent by your birth family. I trust him. You must flee Egypt now." Alexis' foster father Omar drew his heavy brows together as he folded his arms across his broad, barreled chest. His thick, wavy hair, dark as midnight, bounced to his shoulders as he nodded. Gaunt cheeks tapered beneath his neatly sculpted beard. His sharp piercing gaze willed her to listen to him.

H er nostrils flared, her protective instincts screaming no. She sucked in a deep breath and then instilled steel into her words. "I fear Allah in everything. But I don't believe that you know His will or that you are here to do His bidding," she said to Zane.
Despite her brave words, sparks exploded in her arm when Zane brushed against it. Alarmed, she scrambled around her papa's ornate desk to put as much space as possible between herself and the overbearing American. In her haste, she almost knocked over a fifty-year-old fern, but caught and righted it. No reason it should be a casualty of their war. Nor would her foster mother thank her for spilling damp soil on her prized Persian carpet.

The large room bespoke a quiet elegance. Heavy ornate furnishings made the room seem smaller and darker than it actually was but it also gave it a homey, secure feeling. A feeling that usually seeped into her, wrapping around her, but which eluded her this night as the shadows deepened and the moon rose high on the other side of the window.

Staring up at the moon, she fingered the gold filigree locket that hung around her neck and which contained pictures of her American birthparents. She tilted her chin regally and glared at Ryan, willing him to leave. Maybe her heart wouldn't ache so badly once he was safely back on his continent, thousands of miles away.

"You must come with me. The safety of the entire world depends on you." Zane's deep voice was deadly quiet. His gaze locked with hers sending chills down her spine. He didn't move a muscle, not even to brush away the unruly burnished golden locks that fell across his furrowed brow.

7 Elaine Hopper

"Don't dare mock me." Seething, her bosom rose and fell heavily.

"Perhaps your motives are mere worldly double-dealing. How can the world's safety depend on me?" She bit her tongue, but too late. She cursed her fiery American blood for tricking her into being too outspoken, too careless. No matter how hard she tried, however, she could not suppress her forthrightness. Oh, how she wished there was a void where her heart dwelled instead of this hammering ache.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her foster mother's shadow cross hers. Several smaller shadows flitted across the floor.

Zane quirked his right brow and shifted his gaze to her foster father, including him in the discussion. "You know of the Curse of Osiris, the Millennium Prophecy. Explain to her how important it is that she leaves with me now."

Omar nodded slowly. Then he glanced at his wife and their five small daughters. "Savvy, escort the children to another room. We have most urgent, private matters to discuss."

Alexis' foster mother curtsied with quiet assurance and silently ushered her family to another room. She strolled with an easy grace, her long robes flowing gently behind her. Curiosity blazed in the sloe-dark eyes of her five younger foster sisters, but they all dropped their gaze hurriedly except Olivia, the second oldest and bravest child, who stared brazenly from Alexis to Zane with a knowing smile on her lips.

When Alexis turned to exit with the others, Omar put a gentle hand on her wrist, halting her. "Nay, Alexis, you are to go with Zane, not the others."

She nodded, folded her hands together demurely and tried to hide her chafing and immense curiosity, even though she could not help but steal veiled glances at the man who had ruined her life. Did he have any inkling how deeply he had hurt her?

"Come along, Olivia. Your father has spoken." Savitri shooed the girl into the adjoining room and shut the door firmly.

Nodding sagely, Omar locked the door behind them. "I know the prophecy well." He gazed up at the heavens and frowned.

"See? Cassiopeia shines brightly, as prophesied." Zane pointed up at the heavens.

Zane's words were frightening, nonsensical riddles to Alexis' ears. She followed the men's gazes, wondering for what she searched. Cassiopeia was a constellation, wasn't it? What significance did it hold?

"Prophecy said the Evil One would return at the dawn of the new millennium and we have safely passed that. I thought we were safe." Omar's obsidian eyes flashed with alarm. "After Alexis' parents told me of this prophecy, I made it my life's mission to protect her."

"Protect me from what evil? Of what prophecy do you speak, Papa?" Her skirt swished around her ankles as she paced with her hands linked behind her back. "The Evil One? 'Tis very bizarre, like some fairy tale."

8 Curse of Osiris

"I wish that's all it was." Zane ambled to the window and pointed at the brightest star. "See that? When the constellation of Cassiopeia appears at the turn of the new millennium, Seth will come back for his bride. And then a new world order will reign." Zane gazed darkly at them, his intense, inscrutable gaze lingering on her. "The calendar got screwed up. Tomorrow night, the new millennium arrives."

Omar strode to the window and he peered closely at the night sky. "'Tis Cassiopeia all right, which means that Alexis must depart Cairo immediately. Egypt is too dangerous for her now. Can you get her out of the country?"

Zane brushed his unruly hair out of his eyes. His unsettling gaze lingered on her. "Great minds think alike. A chartered plane is waiting for us near the Giza port. The sooner we get the hell out of here, the better."

Befuddled, exasperated, Alexis crossed the room to join the men and stood on her foster father's right so that Zane was on his other side. She stared up at the myriad twinkling lights surrounding the moon, fascinated against her will. "Which constellation is Cassiopeia?"

Zane moved over to her and his scent wrapped around her, tantalizing her despite her wariness of him. He smelled of musky American spices that she'd not encountered since she'd last seen him. They were very familiar, very disturbingly erotic scents and she was aggravated that they sent tremors to the very core of her being. She'd thought she had purged his scent from her memory, but it haunted her as if he had never left.

Zane dropped heavy hands on her shoulders and pointed out the window. His hot breath scorched her neck as he pointed to the brightest cluster of lights in the sky. "Look to the south. The brightest group of stars is Cassiopeia."

Uncontrollable shivers gripped her. She told herself that the fateful stars were responsible for her reaction, but the breeze whistling through the window seemed to whisper "liar". "Will one of you please explain all this talk of doom and calamity?"

Without permission or warning, Zane lifted her veil and then the heavy coil of hair off her neck. His rough fingertip tickled her ultra-sensitive flesh. "You bear the sacred mark."

"What sacred mark is this? I know of no sacred mark on my being." Alexis whirled around, scorched by the man's unwelcome but tingling touch.

"You were born with the sacred mark. Your parents, being students of Egyptology, recognized it and sought to free you from the evil prophecy. But they died protecting you before they could tell me how to save you from the curse." Omar shook his head at her and frowned.

" The wicked god Seth will return to wed his promised bride—you—on the eve of the new millennium. If he succeeds, all hell will break loose."
Annoyed at the men's foray into fantasy, she reeled around. She glared hardest at the foolish American. "Curses? Phophecy? Ancient evil? Pish-tosh!"

9 Elaine Hopper

A disturbing thought nagged at her and she lifted her accusing gaze to Zane. "Is the reason you came into my life before only to be my bodyguard? Was I merely a means to accomplishing your sacred mission?"

"I was sent to protect you, but New Year's Eve came and went and nothing happened."

"And then you departed on swift wings. Your twisted tongue bespoke false tales." So, she had been merely a job. His heart had never overflowed with love for her. She had made an absolute and utter fool of herself. This most heinous knowledge cut her deeply.

Omar turned to her, squared his shoulders and lifted his bearded chin. He held out his hand forcefully. "Cease! We both believed you to be safe, daughter. Now, we know we must get you out of here immediately, lest you fall into Seth's clutches. I prayed it would never be necessary to tell you. I kept guard over you and never saw the signs returning—until my friend pointed to the proof in the stars. Seth tricked us into a false sense of security. Very clever, he is."

S he fingered the back of her neck for any indentations or abrasions and found none except the indentation of the chain that was her constant companion. She couldn't wait to locate two mirrors and see this so-called sacred mark for herself. She rubbed her forehead as merciless tension hammered away at her. "I implore you again, Papa, explain this to me before you send me away."
Omar took her hands in his and led her to a buttery-soft leather chair in front of his desk, motioning for her to take a seat. He perched on the edge of his desk and stroked his beard, sighing. "Listen closely, daughter, for time runs short. Seth, who murdered his own brother Osiris, married his brother's wife and tried to take over his brother's kingdom, is prophesied to awaken from his long slumber at the dawn of the third millennium. Because of his portentous misdeeds, he is not fully human, but a viciously sinister creature who will stop at nothing to remake the world in his own vile image."

Omar half turned, sweeping his arm in a wide arc toward the window behind him, indicating the vast twinkling sky. "The constellation of Cassiopeia signals the monster's return. When the stars are fully aligned, he must wed his betrothed in order to fully regain his powers. Then, he will make over the Earth in his vile image and then no mortal can stop him."

Zane paced before them, his hands linked behind his back. Shadows flitted across his chiseled features and haunted his eyes. Instead of their normal honeyed shade, his eyes were the rich deep hue of warm molasses.

Omar's melodious, rich voice continued to weave its spell over her. "'Tis why we must keep you from him and thwart his plans, or it will be the end of this era."

Her mind fogged, Alexis licked her suddenly parched lips and smoothed her long skirt over her knees. She spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "Why am I the chosen one? Was it a lottery? Or just bad luck? And if this monster is really a god, assuming of course the gods of ancient Egypt are not pure myth, is there refuge to be found anywhere?"

10 Curse of Osiris

Zane leaned heavily on Omar's desk. Gazing deeply into her eyes, he said, "According to ancient legend, you are Seth's reincarnated betrothed, Nepththys."

Grimacing, she glanced down at her dour dress. "Me? You think he believes me to be his star-crossed love?"

"It isn't surprising. Your line is descended from the pharaohs of Egypt." Omar held up a picture and squinted at it. His bushy mustache twitched. "You bear the sacred mark. Thus, the evil one will seek you out."

She was descended from royalty? She turned a suspicious gaze on Zane, still not convinced of the truth of their words. "How do we know you're not the unnamed creature trying to trick me into accompanying you? False tales have slithered from your twisted tongue before."

Zane's scowl deepened. "Give me a break. An evil god wouldn't waste words or give you a choice in the matter."

She wrinkled her nose at the sarcastic American and then glanced at her foster father whom she trusted with her eternal soul as well as her mortal body, seeking confirmation. "Papa?"

"Zane speaks the truth. Seth won't wear modern clothing but ancient robes of gold. He won't travel by boat, plane, or car, but ride on the wings of the wind." Omar reached across the table and squeezed her hand. His lyrical voice washed over her. "'Tis fanciful and farfetched, but many mysteries abound in our world. Have I failed in teaching you this?"

He had taught her, but her sensible American side retained doubts, even if she couldn't recall her birthplace. It could be a very troublesome part of her make-up, one that constantly concerned her foster mother and one that she worked very hard to mask. Right now, she had no desire to suppress that side. "So, I'm the chosen one? Once I'm bound to this Seth, I shall also rule over this new cursed dominion?"

The men exchanged troubled glances. "No. Once you are his virgin bride, he will sacrifice you to fulfill prophecy," Zane said thickly.

"Sacrifice? Remove me to my grandparents at once, before this calamity ensues." She rose and headed toward the door.

Omar kissed her on one cheek and then on the other. Then he waved his hand toward the east. "Make haste before the moon is buried in darkness! May you journey on swift wings."

Alexis stopped dead, her hand on the door handle and stared at her foster father. She couldn't recall a time when Omar hadn't been there for her when she needed him. And she needed him now more desperately than ever, if what the men told her were true. "You aren't journeying with us, Papa? But you're my protector."

Omar extracted official-looking documents from the desk drawer he always kept locked. He strode over to her and handed her the sheaf of papers. "Your passport and birth certificate. You'll need these to depart the country."

11 Elaine Hopper

He enfolded her in a fatherly hug and then he stepped back a pace and smiled into her eyes. He took a wad of money from his desk and tucked it into her hands and closed her fingers around it. "I cannot leave your mother and sisters. I shall accompany you as far as the Giza port, but I cannot journey to America. Always remember that my spirit and my love travel with you. You always have a home here, whenever you desire to return."

She turned the documents over in her hand, staring at them. The end of her life in Egypt and as a member of Omar's family suddenly loomed. Dread washed over her.

Zane threw a heavy-looking duffel bag over his shoulder and straightened to his full, impressive height. He stepped out into the star-studded night and was instantly bathed in moonlight. Moonbeams danced on his golden hair, making it appear brighter than the daytime sands. "I'm taking over his job now. The sooner we leave this godforsaken place, the better."

Tightening her jaw, she passed Ryan without looking directly at him. Out of long habit, she made her way to her camel Raheed, stroked his nose, unhitched him and then mounted. She clucked to her steed as she reined him around so that she faced her new protector. "Shall we?"

Zane arched a brow. He gestured to his vehicle, nodding at the far side of the tent where it barely peeked out. "The Jeep is much faster."

"Oh." She felt like a small, foolish child and heat rushed into her cheeks. She dismountd and tied up the camel. She was quite certain the American was delusional. How had she let herself be swept up in this hysteria? "Are you quite certain that legend about my birthmark isn't some silly fairy tale? You Americans are always predicting the end of the world, doom and disaster."

"You're American, too, sweetheart. Or have you forgotten?" Zane's brow lifted and he shook his head. He unholstered a pistol, snapped it open, filled the chamber with bullets and closed it. Then he flipped the safety and stuffed it back in the holster. He repeated the process with a second pistol holstered on his other shoulder.

"Do be careful with those." She eyed the firearms suspiciously, wondering about his prowess with them.

H e grinned wryly. "No fear, sweetheart. I'm a very cautious guy." His glance raked over her. "It wouldn't hurt you to carry a weapon, under the circumstances. Do you know how to handle a firearm?"
Tremors shot down her spine. "Nay! I've never fired a weapon, nor could I slay another living creature."

"We're talking self-defense. I could teach you—if we had time, which we don't." Zane took a sheathed knife out of his pocket and handed it to her. "Here, keep this handy—just in case. It's better than nothing."

"Will guns and knives protect us against gods?" Or demons? "Don't we need weapons of magic? Potions? Incantations? Amulets?" She pocketed the knife and then

12 Curse of Osiris

rubbed the locket between her fingers, wishing it were a magic amulet and gnawed her lower lip.

"Let's hope we never find out." The arrogant American opened the door, swept his arm wide and bowed mockingly. "Your chariot, Princess Nepththys."

She clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes at him. "I would be most appreciative if you'd refrain from addressing me as such."

Omar climbed in the back of the topless Jeep and leaned over the seat. He produced an ancient book that looked older than time and passed it to her. "Read this on the plane. Perhaps there is a passage in here that will bring illumination. It belonged to your parents and they asked me to give it to you if ever this constellation again appeared in the night sky aligned like this."

Awe washed over her. When she accepted the book, she felt a solid connection to her parents that had been lacking. Here was additional proof they had lived. This was their legacy to her and perhaps a message from the past. "Thank you," she murmured, rubbing her thumb over the heavy gold cover.

The book mesmerized her, bidding her to open its gilt-edged pages. Parchment crackled between her fingers as she slowly turned pages. Her eyes strained to see the ancient scrawl with only the aid of moonlight.

Zane slid a surprised glance to her. "You can read that gibberish?" He pressed the accelerator, fascination gleaming in his eyes.

"I could with better light." She yearned to read it, to learn more of her family and her own fate.

Omar leaned over her shoulder, his chin resting on her shoulder. "'Tis an amazing gift, daughter." A frown knit his brow and his mustache twitched.

She managed to make out a few words with the aid of a small flashlight that Zane extracted from the Jeep's glove box. She underlined the words with her fingertip as she read. "And in the last moments of the old millennium, Seth shall wed his betrothed. Then he will slay the virgin bride as his sacrifice and in so doing, all under the heavens shall be his kingdom and his subjects shall take his form."

Chills raking her body, she stared off into the distance. "Seth," she murmured. "The Evil One. The one who murdered his own brother, Osiris, and tried to steal his throne."

"You're still a virgin, I gather?" Zane asked dryly, his gaze dispassionate once again as if it were an insult.

"What kind of question is that to ask an unmarried woman?" Highly indignant, she clenched her jaw tightly. "How dare you ask me something so intimate!"

Zane chortled in a distinctly American way. "I thought virgins your age were extinct. It is almost the new millennium."

"My age?" She arched her brow at him. "Is twenty-three a spinster in your land?" She tossed her head, snapped the book shut with a bang and laid it on her lap. "We are in Egypt, not America."

13 Elaine Hopper

"Feisty as ever, isn't she? I do believe she's more difficult than I remember," Zane said to Omar, shrugging. Wind whipped his long hair into his eyes and he pushed it away ineffectually, just to have it blow back.

"Vainglorious as ever, aren't you?" she shot back, her eyes narrowed at the younger of the two men. The Jeep rumbled beneath her, bumpy over the uneven dirt road and when they hit a large rock and she was bounced a couple of inches off her seat, she clutched at the door handle lest she be flung against her grumpy savior.

Zane cracked a grin and shook his head as he turned the wheel. Moonbeams danced in the spun gold of his hair, mesmerizing her until she tore her gaze away. "You're not catching me at my best. It's not every day that's the end of civilization as we know it."

"Then let Allah be with us." She kept her gaze straight ahead, pretending a nonchalance she didn't feel. She clutched the handle as the Jeep sped forward at an alarming rate and seemed to home in on every hole and bump in the road. Perhaps it would be a blessing if they died in a motor accident.

Dawn's pink and lavender fingers stretched high into the night sky, pushing it away. Alexis watched, the sun resembling a sorbet floating on the horizon. She stared at it, mesmerized for several long moments before breaking its bewitchment with thoughts. How could evil exist in amidst such beauty?

"I'm well aware of my mission and my duties. It's never left my mind for a moment." Zane nodded at the book. "Now that you have more light, why don't you make it your mission to find a magical solution to our little problem?"

"You always spoke with a flowery tongue, Ryan." She paged through the book slowly, trying to decipher it, losing herself in the fascinating history of an ancient civilization and its allegiance to gods in which she had never believed, but who had supposedly betrothed her long ago.

Omar's hand shot out in front of her face, startling her. "Look out. The sand brews ahead."

Zane swore under his breath and turned the Jeep to go around, pressing the accelerator to the floor. "Hold on tight and close your eyes." He leaned over her lap and fumbled in the glove box until he pulled out a pair of sunglasses.

"Those won't protect you against the sand. You cannot outrun a sandstorm," Omar said direly, wrapping his scarf around his face and pulling his hood up over his head. He leaned forward and helped Alexis to pull up her veil as well.

Zane grimaced, smacking the flat of his hand on the dashboard. "I'm sure going to try. The alternative is to let it bury us alive."

But the storm shifted to the west when Zane moved west and it shifted to the east when Zane turned the car east. The storm more than tripled in size as it closed in on them.

"Faster!" Omar urged, leaning over the front seat. "It will swallow us alive. We need a magic carpet! You do not, perchance, have one?"

14 Curse of Osiris

Zane reached behind him. He pulled a pistol from his holster and held it on the seat beside him.

Alexis stared at the weapon, her mouth as dry as the desert sand. He really planned to use that? Did he expect to do so now? What did he fear from sand that a bullet could cure?

Her foster father shielded his eyes with his hand. The rest of his face remained covered by his scarf. "The next time you come to rescue us, my friend, bring your plane."

Zane palmed the pistol and clicked off the safety. "I wish I had."

(c) 2008 Elaine Hopper- Do not reproduce in any form without the permission of the author/owner.

If you like this sample chapter, you can read the rest and 5 other stories by purchasing a copy of ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS, available from Cerridwen Press http://www.cerridwenpress.com in both electronic and print.
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