Bobbie Huntingdon-Smythe had never been the sort of girl to sit at home unless she had a good book. And the only definition of a good book, as far as she was concerned, was a historical book. Actually, she preferred antiquarian writings, about ancient temples and tombs, but there weren’t enough books to go around, and she had the nagging feeling sometimes that she knew more than the authors did. After all, most of them tended to be boring middle-aged Englishmen who saw the world in a very specific way and never deviated from that viewpoint. There was some fascinating work coming out of Africa, however, and Bobbie was more than capable of conducting her own investigations while she waited for the academics to decide whether the Beaker People really did need to be defined by their tableware or not.
While Bobbie’s enquiring mind was embroiled in a lively French history of the land to the east of Siam, on the other side of India, the rest of her was sitting in Egypt, in a rickety compartment on a train headed as far south as she could get, before she would have to decide what sort of beast of burden to buy from what sort of man, in order to get across the desert and into the location of a mysterious ancient Egyptian burial site.
The worst thing about Egypt in the late spring was the blasted heat. There never seemed to be a breeze, even in a train that had to be traveling at over forty miles per hour. Bobbie had messed around with the windows until she was blue in the face but the air entering from outside was sweltering. Three seasons Bobbie had spent in Egypt, returning home for long enough to ensure her parents didn’t try to visit in the South of France, where she was supposed to be living the life of the idle rich with those amongst her old chums from school who were still unmarried. Given that most of the eligible men had caught it during the Great War, that was most of the girls she knew.
The carriage door slid open, and Bobbie looked up from her book, ready to tell the lecherous conductor she had already shown him her ticket and was probably the only Englishwoman on the train, so perhaps he could stop asking her, but instead of the fat middle-aged man from Cairo, an unfamiliar fellow in a white linen suit looked through the door. He was tall, and looked like he was packing some serious muscle beneath the suit.
“May I help you?” Bobbie asked, with an edge of ice to her voice that she always employed when strange men decided she was worth staring at.
“Bobbie Huntingdon-Smythe?” the man asked. Bobbie closed her book with a snap and frowned. To her surprise, his voice was Scottish, but the sort of refined Scot, with the softer vowels, which implied he was well educated. She might be able to pinpoint his origin further if he said more.
“If you’re a reporter looking to tag along on my next outing, nothing doing,” she told him firmly. It wouldn’t be the first time some hapless newspaper hack had tried to keep up with her. They meant well, but in the end they were always a liability and she had enough trouble keeping herself safe, never mind anyone else. Every trip to Egypt, one of her local assistants would meet an untimely demise. She barely kept track of their names these days. Always, she warned them not to touch the toxic paint, not to steal the canopic jars, but did they listen? Regrettably not.
“Not a reporter, no. Is it safe to assume you are Miss Huntingdon-Smythe?” He was from Edinburgh. The accent was obvious; softer than Glasgow and clearer than anywhere further north.
“I am,” she replied reluctantly. “Who are you, aside from a very forward man barging into my private compartment with neither an introduction nor a by-your-leave?” As always when she felt put out, Bobbie fell back on the scathing sarcasm that often caused people to compare her to the stern headmistress of her girls’ school.
“Sean McClintock,” he replied, touching his hat. It was a cheap one. Bobbie folded her arms and glared at him over the top of her glasses, waiting for an explanation. He stepped into the compartment completely and closed the door behind him. “I’m here to take you home. Your parents are worried.”
She dropped her book in surprise, and her mouth fell open. There was a second when she froze, but then she rallied magnificently, for she was the sort of girl who pulled herself together in a jiffy, then she threw back her head and laughed.
“I’m completely serious, young lass. Your father asked me to bring you home, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” It was utterly preposterous.
“You’re Scottish,” was all she could think of to say.
“Aye. Your father was in the Boer with my father, and they’re army pals. Captain Innis McClintock was my old dad.”
Bobbie vaguely remembered a Captain McClintock visiting for dinner parties occasionally when she was younger. And this chap radiated sincerity. With a lurching stomach, she realized he was almost certainly expecting to cart her home.
“Well, isn’t it a rather small world?” she said brightly. “All right, we’ll get off at the next stop, and hop back home to Blighty.”
“What’s the next stop?”
“Cairo. It’s in about two days.” She suppressed a giggle as he groaned. “Come now, how long have you been tagging after me? Another two days isn’t going to kill you.”
“If I didn’t ken better I’d suspect you planned this,” he muttered.
“And if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you were one of the Boat Race crowd, playing a jape on me.” She raised an eyebrow sternly, inwardly hoping this was just a practical joke.
“Boat Race crowd?”
“You know, the chaps who only seem to pop up on the day of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, but then, suddenly, they’re everywhere, and playing such raucous jests as stealing policeman’s helmets and selling stock options in Prussia.” She remembered one young man in particular, Henry, who had been captivating. When he’d asked her to marry him, she’d accepted on the spot. But then he’d revealed it was all just a practical joke. Well, anyway, she’d been a good sport about it and moved on. It wouldn’t do any good to make a fuss.
“Look here, you know this is no place for an unescorted young lady,” Sean said gently.
Bobbie glared at him, then tutted.
“You should be at home with your family, perhaps even thinking about your future prospects.” Whether he meant well or not, Bobbie felt patronized, which made her lose her patience.
“How very dare you.” She jumped to her feet and began berating him with the history book. Instead of flinching and retreating like most men, he grabbed her around the waist and held her at arms’ length. And his arms were longer than hers. Her grip on the book slipped and she cursed at him in French, Latin, and Greek.
“My mother was not a lady of loose morals, and I’ll ask you to kindly refrain from saying it again,” he told her firmly. “Now, will you stop attacking me or do I need to spank you?”
“I’m not a child,” she retorted petulantly.
“Then stop acting like one.”
“You started it,” Bobbie snapped. Perhaps she wasn’t feeling as sporting about the whole thing as she could have been. Her future prospects were rather a sore spot though, since there was a continental shortage of suitable men across the entire upper class. The ones left were almost all lacking a sense of adventure; many of them hadn’t even gone to war.
By contrast, Bobbie had tried to sign up to join the army at one point. Cutting her hair short, she had dressed as a boy and put on a deep voice. It hadn’t convinced the dour matron in charge of the medical exams for new recruits, and Bobbie was sent packing pretty sharpish. Any man hoping to take her on would have to be at least as adventurous as she was, or they would never keep up with her, which reduced the pool to precisely nobody.
“I bet you claimed to be an invalid to get out of signing up!” she accused.
His gaze darkened and she knew she’d hit a nerve. “When you assume, you make an ass out of yourself,” he said coldly. “I went to war. I came back. Some men did, you know.”
She glared at the man who thought he could take her home to wait for a husband. The whole time, she was still trying to break loose from his vice-like grip. She tried to stamp on his foot for good measure.
“That does it.” He easily manhandled her to one of the compartment’s seats, and then he turned her over his knee and flipped her skirt back. Immediately, she tried to wriggle free. She knew he’d found something unexpected when he sighed.
“A gun? Really? Young lass, these are not toys,” he lectured her. For some reason, his voice seemed to reach inside her and do strange things to her organs. A fluttering began in her stomach that had nothing to do with being on a train.
“Have you seen where we are? We’re in Egypt. I had to make it through Italy to even get here. Do you know how Italian men behave when they meet an unaccompanied woman? It’s my lookout if I want a bit of extra protection. Anyway, I’m twenty-four. So desist in calling me young.” She stopped wriggling because it got in the way of thinking through how to get out of this awkward situation.
“You’ve got me. You don’t need any other protection,” he replied.
She snorted in derision. “Fat lot of good you’ll be if you balk at the sight of a revolver.” In her whole life, she didn’t think she’d ever met anyone so cocky but so completely ill-equipped to follow through.
He slipped the gun from her garter and placed it on the small table near the window.
“This is a pea-shooter compared to the guns I’m used to. But you could still hurt someone with that thing.” His voice was so condescending that she wanted to tip cod liver oil on his head.
“That’s rather the point,” she retorted. Perhaps if she brought her elbow down between his legs… but when she tried to move, her arm jammed into his thigh instead, and then he firmly grasped her wrists and pinned them to the small of her back.
“You know, you really are something, lass.”
“What are you going to do about it?” she challenged, then abruptly stopped trying to argue as he peeled her skirt back farther, revealing her underwear.
“I’m going to redden your bottom, then I hope you’ll be more compliant from now on.” His voice had a hint of weariness in it. Bobbie wasn’t sure how he was fed up of her already, but apparently that was the case. It wasn’t like she’d asked him to follow her to Egypt and ‘protect’ her from anything.
His fingers moved down the waistband of her combinations and she widened her eyes as he slid them down, baring her bottom. Anyone looking into the train compartment could see her exposed skin, and she flushed furiously.
“How dare you?” she protested. “I mean, giving a girl what-for is one thing, but doing it on the bare is completely uncalled for!”
“Quiet. You don’t get to choose what happens here. I decide how this happens, and I want to see your lovely skin turn pink as I teach you how to behave.” His voice didn’t help matters, and Bobbie felt a spark of excitement run through her, even as she wanted him to stop.
“This is undignified,” she grumbled.
“That’s rather the point. Perhaps you’ll think twice about how to behave next time,” Sean growled.
Bobbie sighed. If only do-gooders would leave her alone to her pursuits, she wouldn’t be any trouble to anyone. Why he had thought it was worth the effort to come all the way out here only to take her home, she had no idea. Perhaps his father owed her father money. That was the most likely explanation. It had taken her two weeks of travel to get this far around the world; his journey must have been similar.
Dragging her thoughts back to her current predicament, his hand landed on her bottom much harder than she had expected, and the sound was like a pistol shot at the beginning of a race. She steeled herself, resolved not to show him how much it hurt, but beneath her cool exterior, her left cheek stung like the dickens. He quickly inflicted the same on the right cheek and then set about her at a steady pace, viciously swatting her tail with his broad palm, but Bobbie knew the drill.
She was an old girl from an exclusive boarding school and her bottom had regularly been endangered for a variety of reasons, all of which seemed fool-proof at the time of concoction. Some girls were always accidentally falling into trouble, but Bobbie was completely incorrigible and had deliberately gotten up to all sorts of mischief with her friends. If she couldn’t remain stoic for a licking, her name wasn’t Bobbie Huntingdon-Smythe.
A hand was a new experience, however, and the man wielding it was certainly no sap, regardless of his opinion about guns. He seemed to make it last so much longer than a caning ever did, and while, with the cane, the danger of crying out was only usually immediately after the stick had landed, with a hand spanking it was constant. Soon, she was breathing heavily and squeezing her fists tightly to try and deal with the burning, but his hand kept coming.
“I say,” she began, forcing her voice to sound fine. “I’m sorry I hit you with the book.”
“And what else?” he asked.
She thought for a moment, then added, “And for calling your mother the daughter of an unwashed Visigoth.”
“And what else?” His voice was stirring something inside her, and combined with the pain from the spanking, she was struggling to concentrate.
She paused. “That’s all, isn’t it?”
“What about your elbow?”
“Oh, no, you completely deserved that.” She didn’t even hesitate in making her feelings known.
He resumed spanking her in a rapid-fire movement that left her gasping for breath and clawing at the floor of the train compartment.
“All right! All right! I give!”
“And what else?” he prompted.
“And… for trying to elbow you in the trousers.” She tried to be earnest but really, she did think he had it coming. After all, he seemed to think he ought to stop her from travelling the world in search of interesting ancient sites, and that simply wasn’t reasonable. Who cared if she was a girl? She could wrangle the past as well as any man. She didn’t need protecting.
“I’m not convinced you’ve learned your lesson. Stand beside the window and hold your skirt up,” he told her.
Bobbie stared at him. “Are you serious?”
“I never joke about such things. You’d do well to remember that. Now do as you’re told.”
She shook her head adamantly. “I shan’t expose myself for your merriment. I thought you were here to protect me. Nobody else on this train is trying to make me do anything untoward, so if you truly want to keep me safe, leave my compartment before I throw you out!” she retorted hotly.
“I won’t do anything. Yet. But you’re going to do it,” he told her.
She shook her head again. “Why would I?”
“Because I dare you to.” His eyes flashed as he spoke. Bobbie’s face grew hot as she realized she was cornered. He’d got her number good and proper. She pursed her lips so hard that she was quickly making a face like she’d been sucking a lemon. Bobbie trudged to the corner with an air of dejection, then lifted her skirt up.
“That was jolly unsporting of you, to dare me to do it,” she told him.
“I had a theory that you were the sort of girl who would do anything for a dare,” he explained. “And it seems that I was right.”
She looked over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. “You’re looking,” she accused.
“I never said I wouldn’t admire the view.” He had a strange expression on his face, and Bobbie almost thought he was amused and trying to hide it, but what on earth was funny about spanking someone and making them stand in a corner like this?
Her bottom was radiating heat and she felt peevish but somehow she was failing to stay as stoic about this as she might have done. Perhaps if she’d been expecting it… but no one had chastised her bottom since she finished upper sixth and anyway it hadn’t factored into her plans for today to meet someone who had taken it upon himself to be her unwanted bodyguard.
Bobbie made up her mind on the spot: she was going to have to give him the slip as soon as possible. She began concocting a plan.
The moment the old train arrived in Cairo, Bobbie hopped off and disappeared into the crowd. She knew he would catch up with her soon if she remained in the city, but she had no intention of being a sitting duck. No, she would be the sort of duck who took to water. Hurrying through the narrow, winding streets of Egypt’s capital, Bobbie clutched her carpet bag and wondered who the cheeky Scotsman thought he was, chasing after her all the way here.
It crossed her mind that perhaps he was in cahoots with one of her rivals. William Petrie, distant relative of the well-revered antiquarian Flinders Petrie, was always trying to find out what Bobbie knew, in an attempt to take her discoveries for himself. She didn’t think it likely though.
It was far more probable that her parents had seriously sent a man after her to keep an eye on her as though she were an errant toddler playing too close to a stream. How silly of them.
The whitewashed walls were greying and grimy in this part of the city. Bobbie was glad she knew the warren of narrow roads like the back of her hand; it would make it far easier to give Mister Sean McClintock the slip.
For some reason, her thoughts kept returning to how handsome he was, how his voice had done strange things to her insides, and how that strict spanking had left her bottom stinging and her insides glowing. Every time she pushed him out of her mind he returned, like a stray dog. She grudgingly conceded that he was rather handsome, but aside from his propensity for condescension, she also suspected he wasn’t terrifically adventurous.
It didn’t take long for Bobbie to reach the banks of the Nile, whereupon she followed the road down to the harbour. She dodged and skipped over the vendors whose wares were precariously calculated to cause the most amount of nuisance to passers-by, in the hopes that people might buy something whilst trying to navigate the street. After leaping over yet another grubby curtain covered in cheap trinkets, Bobbie saw the boat.
When she gave the captain a crisp five-shilling note, it took all of two minutes for him to issue her a ticket and stand aside so she could ascend the rickety gangplank, made of bowing planks of wood that threatened to hurl Bobbie into the crocodile-infested waters, and embark the boat.
Calling it a cruise was a generous overstatement. It was the sort of matchwood vessel that had seen better days—when the wood that made it had been trees. By design, it had no bathroom facilities save for a bucket in a small unlit cupboard, shared by everyone on board. Bobbie vowed to use it as little as possible.
The cabins were equally rough, with a short, narrow berth for each passenger. There was no second or first class, and Bobbie had the misfortune to be sleeping in the same room as a particularly obnoxious woman who snored even when she was awake, and who seemed to have something against regular bathing.
The Nile was a huge river, over a mile wide by Bobbie’s guess, and it almost looked like the sea. Aside from the scenery being dry and sandy, it reminded her of the Firth of Forth as it turned into the North Sea whilst it flowed past Edinburgh. The key difference, however, was that the Forth was tidal, whereas the Nile was not. Whilst Bobbie wasn’t especially prone to seasickness, she still enjoyed not needing to take preventative measures.
Her fellow passengers were a peculiar bunch. Aside from the woman who snored all the time, there was a litany of characters. When Bobbie went up to the deck to admire the view, she encountered a few of them. At the prow of the vessel, an Egyptian man was playing a pipe. Bobbie stepped closer to listen, then startled and hurriedly moved away as she realized he was charming a cobra in a basket. She hated snakes with a passion. If the damned cobra were to escape and find its way near her in the night, it would swiftly find itself on fire. She wasn’t sure what possessed some people to befriend poisonous cobras and she was not in the least bit curious about them.
An assortment of other passengers sat on top of the roof of the main cabin. Some had brought bread and local wine. Others were sleeping up there. What really drew Bobbie’s attention, however, was the man who was talking to a pet mouse. By the looks of it, they were having an entire conversation, in great depth and seriousness. Every so often, the man would chortle with laughter, then gaze around the deck, telling anyone who looked his way that the mouse had a rapier wit. Bobbie doubted that, but the chap seemed entertained, nonetheless.
Sean was frustrated that the young Englishwoman had evaded him so easily. On reflection, perhaps he had scared her off by spanking her. It was hard to tell, though, because she’d seemed quite stoic about it at the time.
In the six years since the armistice, Sean had taken on numerous protection jobs, because he was good at keeping people safe. He’d followed heiresses plenty of times in the past for their parents. Usually, their lives were uneventful and the money was easy. But he had never had to work with someone who was simultaneously so determined to evade him and so intent on putting herself in danger.
He wasn’t used to dealing with young ladies in matters of discipline, and was finding it difficult to hold himself back. If she’d been one of his recruits in the British Army, he would have had her cleaning the toilets with her toothbrush and holding heavy weights in the corner to teach her to listen. But out here, on civvy street, he knew that wasn’t how things were done. People didn’t have any incentive to behave. And nobody knew any more how to rein people in when they were out of control.
Bobbie’s father knew Sean’s dad from the Boer. Old Colonel McClintock had been a formidable man, fierce in the battlefield and demanding in the home. But he’d loved Sean’s mother with all his heart, and while he’d always expected her and Sean to obey him without question, he’d been a kindly and caring head of the household. Sean missed his dad. Lord Huntingdon-Smythe had apparently followed Sean’s military record during the Great War, and decided that he was the man for the job of keeping Bobbie safe.
He knew from the papers her father had found in her bedroom that Bobbie was heading toward a certain area in the middle of the desert, and the most convenient way to get there was to take the river taxi, a crumbling vessel that was docked on the Nile. Sean didn’t want to scare Bobbie off the boat before it departed the dock, as it would be far easier to corral her once she was cornered, so he watched the boat carefully until he saw her disappear below decks with her carpet bag.
Sean bought a ticket and went straight to his berth, neither pausing to speak to anyone nor making any enquiries of the staff. He would remain in his bunk until the boat was definitely on the water. The girl wouldn’t be stupid enough to jump off a moving boat into the mile-wide, crocodile-infested waters of the Nile, surely.
He sipped at a canteen of water he’d brought with him and bided his time, forgoing the evening meal with the intent of lulling her into a false sense of security. She couldn’t escape if she didn’t know she was in a mousetrap. He would have her tootling back to her parents’ comfortable country pile in no time at all.
When Mr. and Mrs. Huntingdon-Smythe had enlisted Sean’s help, they had provided him with all the details about her disobedience, her refusal to even consider marrying anyone, and her dangerous behaviour. What they failed to explain was why. It appeared that she could certainly use some discipline in her life, however, and he wouldn’t balk at meting it out until she was safely returned to her family. He had worked to train men who were from all walks of life during the war, between being sent out to the front lines, and he knew a thing or two about getting people to behave.
When they first met, Sean thought Bobbie seemed rather quiet and thoughtful in person, not at all like her parents had described, but then her wild side had come out when he’d had to spank her. He was more than a little intrigued by the attractive redhead who was bookish one moment and almost an acrobat the next. But what on Earth had possessed her to come to Egypt? And why, given that he’d caught her fair and square, hadn’t she returned with him? It was most peculiar. Still, he would spring his trap tomorrow and have her home by the end of the month.
On the second day, Bobbie was eating dinner when a newcomer joined the table. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and it was difficult to gauge his appearance beneath it, given how poor the lighting was below the deck. Bobbie was sure she’d seen him before, and she rolled the mystery around in her mind while she tried to finish her meal, which comprised of poorly cooked and unrecognizable parts of animals.
As she headed back to her cabin, someone touched her shoulder. Spinning around in surprise, she came face to face with the Scotsman once again.
“You!” she grumbled. Of course he was the man who wore his hat at the dinner table. Manners clearly didn’t run in his family.
“Me,” he confirmed. “Are you going to come quietly, now, or do I have to remind you about how to behave?”
“I think you’ll find I’m not the one who requires an education in appropriate attire at the dinner table,” she replied coldly. “Go and boil your head.”
“I’ll take it you need the reminder, then.” He lifted her easily, flipping her over his shoulder where he landed three fast swats before marching swiftly to his own cabin. When Bobbie heard the lock click, she knew she was in for it.
“Look here, I’ll come back to England,” she said, as he unfastened his belt. She had heard about how bad a belting could be, although it was another punishment she’d never received.
“Where have I heard that before?” He placed her down on the bed, quickly lifting her skirt to reveal her thin underwear, then as she tried to get up, he knelt over her thighs with one of his legs, pinning her wrists against her back with one of his hands. Bobbie sighed in defeat and steeled herself for the inevitable thrashing she was about to get.
The belt smacked across both her cheeks and she hissed through her teeth at the sudden and immediate burning pain that blossomed where it landed. Not waiting, he brought it down again, seemingly disinterested in avoiding any overlap. It stung so much worse than his hand, and while she still tried to avoid making any noises, she wriggled her bottom to try to get the sting out. It was no good, however, and the pain from the first two licks was still clinging to her skin when the third one came down, making her gasp as it caught her straight across the line where her bottom became her thighs. She scrunched her toes, trying her best not to kick her legs, a resolution that she also failed to keep when the next two licks of the belt thundered down on her poor bottom.
“Please,” she implored him, trying not to show how much this hurt whilst trying to get him to stop.
“No,” came the reply. He brought the belt down again and again, and when he’d done it a dozen or so times, Bobbie cracked. First she sniffled, then she began to cry. Mostly, she was sure that the Egyptian heat was getting to her, because she rarely cried under normal circumstances. Wet tears streaked down her face and landed on the floor below, as the boat rocked on the Nile. Still, he continued punishing her.
When her bottom and legs were burning all the way to the back of her knees, at long last he stopped. The belt fell to the floor with a thunk, then his fingers were lightly dancing over the burning welts he’d inflicted so dispassionately just moments earlier.
“Are you all right?” he asked, and Bobbie was surprised to hear tenderness in his voice. She cleared her throat to try and not sound like she’d just been crying.
“Yes. Fine. Never better.” She gasped in pain as the flat of his hand landed squarely on her sit spot.
“That was for telling untruths,” he told her.
“My bottom hurts,” she admitted. “You seem to have a preference for it.”
“I take no pleasure in disciplining you, lass. It’s what you need, though, I can see that. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be gallivanting off out here instead of being at home.”
“Why must a girl be naturally undisciplined and disobedient to want to see the world? Why is the world designed in such a way that women are almost forced to live out their whole lives in a small corner of it, never expected to dream about anything more or aspire to amounting to anything? Why is it so objectionable to men like you, that in lieu of finding a suitable husband, of which the world is lacking, a woman is vilified for going out into the world and seeking her fortune? If I were a man I would be lauded for what I’ve done out here.”
“Have you quite finished on your soapbox?” he asked, gently lifting her up and sitting her on the bed beside him.
“It depends,” she replied. “Do you understand that women might want to do more than what men expect of them?”
He gave her a long look. “Perhaps. Depends on the woman. And on the expectation. For example, during the Great War, the nurses were formidable, and I’d never cross them, but I’d also not want to put a gun in their hands or put them on the front lines.”
Bobbie coloured red as she remembered trying to join the military during the war. “But what if a woman wanted to be on the front lines? What if she didn’t want to be a nurse?”
“I wouldn’t train her. I couldn’t. Shooting an enemy… it breaks a part of your soul. It changes you forever. Makes you… less soft. I wouldn’t want to inflict that on a woman.”
Bobbie glared at him, feeling like he was still being utterly sexist.
“Look, lass, I’ve got you now and I’m going to do my job, so I can go back to my own house and spend my days taking on more interesting body-guarding jobs than this one. If you give me the slip again, I’ll have to tie you down to get you back home, and you really won’t like that, so be good and come quietly, all right, lass?”
Bobbie stared at Sean for the longest time, deciding between finishing her expedition and returning home to disentangle herself from the stern Scot, and decided there were worse things to do than to drop into her family pile for a brief interlude until Mr. Spanky decided to pursue some other wayward girl.
The journey back to Britain was mostly uneventful, and in no time at all, Bobbie found herself dying inside whilst nodding along to her mother reading out the society pages at the breakfast table every morning. The irritatingly dogged Scotsman vanished into the aether and Bobbie was sure she’d seen the last of him.
Three months after she had returned from Egypt, it was that time of year when every country house had its own annual ball, offset so the usual crowd would spend each weekend at a different manor. The servants had been finishing preparations for the Huntingdon-Smythe bash, which was to commence the following day. Bobbie sat on a pink velvet armchair in the pink room, where the ladies of the house were expected to retire with tea after dinner, avoiding the smoky drawing room where the men would be sipping whisky. She might have suffocated from the conversation between her mother and a couple of early arrivals for the weekend’s festivities, but thankfully Adeline Hawthorne—Wolstanton, now, Bobbie corrected herself—was one of the premature guests, and the two girls were gracefully consuming as much tea as the servants could provide.
“The evening news, madam.” Cribbins, one of the footmen, placed a folded broadsheet paper on the sofa between Bobbie and Adeline. Bobbie frowned; this was so far outside normal protocol that she almost enquired as to whether the young man had a fever. Unlike Adeline, who had always revelled in trashing social conventions, Bobbie appreciated good manners and only broke the rules when she wanted to do something that she was too curious about.
Before she spoke, however, she glanced down at the headline, and when she looked back up at Cribbins, it was with appreciation that he’d brought her the news, even as a frisson of fury made her knit her brows while she stared back at the thin grey paper emblazoned with fat black words.
William Petrie’s picture graced the evening news.
“Isn’t that where you went, recently?” Adeline Hawthorne enquired. Bobbie clenched her fists so tightly that she only heard her teacup crack after she felt the hot liquid drench her hand with a plop, as the tea hit her pale blue gown and covered her thighs on its journey to find the lowest level.
“Bother.” Bobbie knew better than to use stronger language anywhere near her mother. She closed her eyes for a moment, tuning out the chaos as servants surrounded her, and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, several servants were standing within three feet of her, looking uncertain about what to do.
“Bobbie, dear? Let go of the cup,” Adeline coaxed gently. Bobbie stared at her hand. Shards of Royal Doulton shone with tea. She released the handful of china into a saucer proffered by a servant. Beneath, a dark rivulet began making its way down her hand.
“Good heavens, lady,” a servant squeaked. Adeline hissed at her and she shrank back.
“What’s the matter, have none of you ever seen blood before?” Adeline demanded. She swiftly whipped her handkerchief out of a pocket and bound Bobbie’s hand tightly. “Keep it over your head, dear.” Adeline helped Bobbie to her feet. Bobbie grasped the paper in her other hand, determined to read the rest of the article once she’d recovered her senses.
“I’m sorry, my lady, I didn’t mean to cause no upset.” Cribbins’ voice was strained. In the background, the other women chattered about begonias, completely oblivious to the turmoil as Bobbie’s world wavered around her.
“Please pass on our apologies to everyone in the room. Bobbie has been taken ill and we need to retire, now,” Adeline said firmly, then, keeping Bobbie’s hand above her head, she led her out of the pink room and up the stairs. Bobbie felt rather silly that she’d lost control of her emotions so near to a party.
“What the dickens was that about?” Adeline asked after locking Bobbie’s bedroom door. Bobbie flopped on her bed, grateful that she had a friend with her who knew how to navigate a scrape.
“William Petrie. William fucking Petrie…” Bobbie trailed off, squeezing her toes in her stupid tight shoes as she tried to put her words together but the fury boiled over. “He just made a great discovery exactly where I was headed.”
“It must just be a coincidence, though, right?” Adeline put an arm around Bobbie’s shoulders.
“It’s always a coincidence. The sort of coincidences where he intentionally bribes my local men to tell him where I am headed, then takes my find for himself.”
Adeline frowned. “What a scab. You should put him in his place.”
“I’d love nothing more. Ooh. All the planning… the months of translating bloody Coptic. And no one ever appreciates how obscurely useless Hieroglyphs are by comparison to Coptic. Hieroglyphs only tell you about things you’ve already found… for that scallywag to swan in at the last minute and swoop.”
Adeline shook her head. “It’s disgraceful. He’s a bad sort. If his family weren’t so well-to-do he’d be out on his ear.”
“And instead he has a lifetime membership to every bloody society in London. The geographic, the Royal Society, the Philosophical Society… even the B-M loves him.”
“B-M?” Adeline asked.
“Sorry. British Museum. He has a free pass because of who his great-grandfather was. And young Bill only makes his name by stealing my bloody sites!”
“You know that you don’t actually own them, don’t you?”
Bobbie growled. “Neither does he!”
“There must be something you can do to put paid to his nonsense. You always had something up your sleeve when we were at school.”
“You mean, teach him a lesson, that sort of thing?”
Adeline smiled warmly. “Don’t let Edward catch me egging you on. But yes. Exactly that.”
Bobbie thought on this for a moment.
“Here, let me look at your hand.” Adeline reached for the handkerchief around Bobbie’s right hand. “It’s only a surface wound.”
“When did you learn that?” Bobbie asked.
Adeline held out her own hand, and Bobbie stared at the palm, which was indented with a huge dark pink line, surrounding a thin white scar.
“That must have been sore,” Bobbie remarked.
“First night I was at Edward’s, I punched out an upstairs window.”
“Why?” Bobbie knew Adeline had issues, but even so.
“I was trying to escape and he’d locked the sash.”
Bobbie thought back to the maddening man who had intervened while she was in Egypt. “I could believe that. The reason I didn’t get to Petrie’s latest find in time was because I got stopped by an impenetrable Scotsman.”
“Oh?” Adeline’s eyes lit up in curiosity, and Bobbie told her friend all about what had transpired between herself and Sean McClintock. Except the spanking. She couldn’t bring herself to share that. Something in Adeline’s countenance made it clear that she understood, however.
“It gets easier, you know,” Adeline said softly.
“What does?” Bobbie’s voice came out a little more sharp than she’d intended.
“Putting up your… putting up with infuriating Scotsmen.”
“Noted.” Bobbie raised one eyebrow, but didn’t press her friend for the details. What a married man and woman did in their own home was nobody else’s business. Or an unmarried man and woman, actually.
While Adeline’s words got Bobbie thinking about how to get one over Petrie, it did nothing to improve her mood. The fiend had made a great discovery, in the exact spot Bobbie had been heading for.
For several days, Bobbie was spitting sparks, and even her cat hadn’t wanted to come near her, but eventually she calmed down, and when she did, she decided that she was done with Egypt, anyway. Done with the people, the dry heat, the camels, and more than anything, done with irritating Scotsmen bent on ruining her work.
Egypt was old hat, and any fellow with a big shovel and a pack of locals could make a discovery out there. She wanted to go somewhere more intriguing and challenging. With that settled, she turned her attention to other parts of the world, and other mysteries of the past. If Petrie wanted to be a great antiquarian in Egypt, Bobbie decided he could bally well do it by himself, and that the best revenge on him would be to stop leaving herself open to her ideas being stolen.
As for the Scot with the strong hand, she hoped that he was busy drinking away his earnings in a pub somewhere in London. She was sure that he would find easier ways to make a quick shilling than going after errant heiresses.