Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part six

Continued from here

Shepheard Hotel, Cairo
April 13, 1923

I walk through the streets like a ghost. I'm not a person anymore. My heart has been taken from me.”
Samia al-Safwan, upon the death of her husband

For three days now, Charlie had sat at Jack's side in a suite at the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, clutching desperately at his hand, wiping his brow, attempting to spoon-feed him broth laced with quinine, and weeping quietly when he fell into blessed sleep. For three days now, Jack had been enduring a cruel cycle of sudden coldness followed by rigor and convulsions, which were in turn followed by fever, vomiting, and sweating. These cycles would last for hours at a time and were getting worse, barely leaving him enough time in between to rest.

The quinine didn't seem to be helping at all; in fact, it seemed to be making him worse. His skin had taken on a yellowish tinge that was even present in the whites of his eyes and when he could urinate, it was nearly black. The physician who was attending to Jack assured Charlie that the quinine would cure malaria, she only needed to be patient and let the drug run its course.

The fever had taken Jack so quickly. Five days ago, they'd been slowly recovering from Lord Carnarvon's death and had said good-bye to Evy at the docks in Port Said. Then only two days later, Jack started complaining of a terrible headache, and just a few hours after the first cycle hit him. Carter quickly diagnosed malaria and found a British-educated native physician to care for his partner.

Work on the dig had stopped, of course. Just before Carnarvon had died, they'd begun disassembling the golden shrine that Carter surmised would contain the Boy King's sarcophagus. But with two of the leading men responsible for the dig sick or dead, Carter thought it best to take some time to regroup and come up with a new plan of attack. At first, Jack wanted to be kept abreast of whatever was happening, so Charlie read him the daily updates from Carter. But as the disease progressed, Jack lost interest in everything but just making it through the next cycle of convulsions and fever and vomiting.

On the morning of the thirteenth of April, Jack's physician drew Charlie aside after the first of his twice-daily visits. “He has blackwater fever, Mrs Taylor,” the man said in heavily-accented English. “I'm sorry to tell you this, but he will most likely die.”

Charlie was stunned. His words made no sense to her. “What? Blackwater fever? I don't understand. You said he had malaria.”

And he does, but sometimes – and we don't know why – the quinine makes malaria worse. It's jaundice, you see. The yellowing of the skin? It means his liver is failing. And his water? It's black, yes? The quinine does this sometimes. It's called blackwater fever.”

The bottom dropped out of her world suddenly and she found she couldn't draw a breath. “So the medicine you gave him to make him better is actually making him worse?” Anger sudden ran white-hot in her blood and she clenched her hands at her sides so she wouldn't take a swing at the little man. “Give him something else! Stop the quinine and give him something that will actually make him better!”

The physician removed his glasses and fumbled with a handkerchief to mop his brow. “I'm sorry, Mrs Taylor. Truly I am, but there is nothing we can do now except make him comfortable.”

She made a noise that fell somewhere between a strangled sob of grief and a roar of anger and coldcocked the physician, screaming “No!” over and over. She couldn't lose Jack; she hadn't had enough time with him. Four years were just not enough time. They hadn't yet started a family, they hadn't found Tut yet. There was so much that they needed to do!

Leaving the physician sprawled out in the parlour of their suite, bleeding and still mumbling apologies, Charlie ran to Jack's side, falling to her knees and touching him, her hands like butterflies as they flitted over him, wanting to touch all of him at the same time, needing to somehow draw the sickness out of his body like some Southern Pentecostals claimed they could. “Jack?” she whispered, tears beginning to flow freely now. “Jack, baby? Can you hear me?”

Jack's eyes, once so bright and alive, opened and he turned his head towards her, trying to give her a smile. He was gaunt now, and dark shadows had taken up residence in the hollows of his cheeks and beneath his eyes. “Hello, Bunny,” he whispered. “Might I have some water?”

Charlie helped him sit up a bit, alarmed at how hot he was, and gave him a few sips of water. Then she laid him back down and mopped his brow with cool water. “Charlie, stop,” Jack said, his voice a tiny bit stronger now, his hand rising to grip hers tightly. “Look at me, Charlotte.”

She did, meeting his eyes, unable to keep the tears from her own. Jack smiled at her and reached to brush away her tears with his free hand. “I heard what the old man said, Charlie. I know I'm dying and so do you.”

No, Jack. I'll find someone else. I'll find someone who knows what they're doing. I sent a cable to your family. They'll find someone. You just need to rest and work on getting better.” Jack was right, of course. Even if the Taylors found the leading malaria physician in the world, unless they could get him here in the next hour, it would be too late. Jack was dying and Charlie's entire world was slowly sliding into the abyss.

Charlie, listen to me,” Jack said urgently. “I love you. I love you so much and I'm so glad for our years together. You are an amazing woman, Bunny. Never, ever forget that. You can do anything you want. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I love you, too, Jack,” she said, gripping his hand and crying freely. “I'll always love you. But please, Jack; please don't leave me. I need you.” She collapsed against his chest, sobbing hard, hugging him tightly against her.

She was still holding him when he died a few hours later. He opened his eyes one last time, looked up at her and whispered, “I love you, Bunny,” and then she felt his heart flutter and then stop. The breath left his body and he went still and limp in her arms. She screamed, a high-pitched keening wail, over and over. People rushed into the suite – bellboys, the manager, other guests. One woman, a middle-aged society matron, rushed to Charlie's side, carefully trying to take Jack from her arms and draw her away, ineffectually trying to offer comfort. The look in Charlie's eyes scared them all away, though; fearing bodily harm from the tiny widow, they huddled in the parlor of the suite and waited for someone braver to come.

Finally, Carter entered the suite and was able to remove Charlie from Jack's bedside so the physician and his attendants could take care of the body. Carter encouraged Charlie to take some sleeping pills and led her to his own suite where she could rest in quiet seclusion. While she rested, he took it upon himself to notify the Taylors and the McNamaras of Jack's death and to make arrangements for his funeral.

The press, who had begun printing stories about the Pharaoh's curse after Carnarvon's death, took the bit in their teeth now upon learning of Jack's death. “Curse of the Mummy's Tomb!” screamed the headlines, claiming that the entire dig in the Valley of the Kings had fallen afoul of some ancient black magic. From some unnamed source, there were claims of hieroglyphics on the outside of the tomb, which read, “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.” Another paper alleged a different set of hieroglyphics that supposedly read, “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.” Pointing to Carnarvon's sudden illness and the exotic nature of Jack's death as evidence, many other papers foretold of more deaths, including Carter's.

The claims of a cursed dig were, of course, ridiculous. But that didn't stop even people like Arthur Conan Doyle from suggesting in the press that Carnarvon and Taylor's deaths were caused by elementals created by Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb. Carter kept Charlie carefully shielded from the rumors, not wanting to add to the girl's already considerable pain, and soon enough, the papers moved on to stories about the Duke of York's wedding.

Charlie's eldest brother, Junior, was the only member of her family who was able to make it to Jack's funeral. Howard and Marjorie both had their own health problems, which kept them from making the long, expensive journey; Gwen and Al had a brand new baby boy to care for, and Junior's wife, Georgia, stayed in Colorado Springs with their two children. Jack's father and younger brother, Jacob, were in attendance, as well; his mother had died when Jack was just 14 years old.

Jack was interred in the Bab al-Nasr Cemetery, not far from the Al-Hakim Mosque in central Cairo. The service was blessedly short and when it was over, Charlie and Junior went back to Charlie's suite at the Shepheard and got absolutely rolling drunk and stayed that way until Junior left to return to Colorado Springs four days later.

On the morning of April 29th, Charlie received news that would further spiral her world out of control. She learned that she was pregnant.

Shepheard Hotel, Cairo
May 14th, 1923

I'm sorry, Mrs. Taylor, but your credit has run out. You will have to leave the suite,” said the pasty-faced front desk clerk, his rheumy eyes shifting nervously behind thick glasses. The glorified paper-pusher refused to meet Charlie's eyes; he knew he was evicting a recent widow who had no family or friends in Cairo and he did feel rather awful about it, but rules were rules, after all, and if he bent them for one guest, he'd have to bend them for all guests and then chaos would rule. And let's not mention the fact that the widow Taylor was absolutely blotto at eleven o'clock in the morning. The Shepheard Hotel was a respectable establishment, not a gin joint where every floozy and dewdropper in Cairo could shack up.

Where am I to go, Mr. Amos? I've just lost my husband!” Charlie was perilously close to reaching across the desk, hauling clerk out by his shirt collar and pummeling his toadying little face. Only the tiniest shred of remaining decorum and the fact that she would be disgracing Jack's memory kept her from acting on her impulses.

I'm afraid that is no longer our concern, Mrs. Taylor,” replied the clerk, trying very hard to keep his voice from cracking in fear. “Now, please, remove yourself from the lobby or I shall be forced to phone the authorities and have you removed.”

Charlie's bloodshot eyes narrowed and she said in a flat voice, “You can be certain that I will not be staying here again, and I shall keep my friends and relations from staying here as well.” Then she summoned up all the dignity she could muster and wobbled out of the lobby on extremely unsteady legs to hail a cab. There were no cabs immediately in front of the hotel, and rather than further disgracing the sacrosanct Shepheard by loitering in front of its august entrance, she began walking north towards the Cairo Museum.

The merciless Egyptian sun beat down on Charlie's bare head, making her dizzy and sending streams of sweat pouring down her face. There was no shade, of course, on Ibrahim Pasha Street, or anywhere else in Cairo for that matter. Charlie suddenly felt a sharp, painful longing for the mountains of Colorado – the icy-cold waters of Michigan Creek, the scent of pine resin in the forests that lined the slopes of Mosquito Peak, the feeling of tall grass brushing against her legs as she ran through the meadows around her home. She stumbled as her eyes filled with tears, her hand reaching out automatically to stop her fall, only to shove against another passerby, who caught her and hauled her to her feet.

Charlotte!” Her rescuer was Howard Carter, who stared at her in wide-eyed shock. “Bloody hell,” he said, keeping his hand firmly around her upper arm. “What's happened to you? You look a mess. Here, let's go inside and sit down.” He steered her into one of the city's many tea houses, saw her seated at a table, and then went to fetch some drinks of the non-alcoholic variety.

When Carter returned to the table, Charlie was crying freely, tears rolling down her cheeks and leaving round watermarks on her skirt. Carter ineffectually patted Charlie's shoulder and handed her a tiny glass of tea before taking his own seat across from her. “I'm sorry, Howard,” she mumbled, trying to wipe her eyes and juggle the glass of tea at the same time.

Think nothing of it, my dear,” he said with typical English aplomb. “How have you been?” he asked delicately, though he could guess by her appearance and the stench of alcohol that rolled off her.

Charlie laughed bitterly. “I've been thrown out of the hotel, Howard. I've lost my husband and I have no money to find somewhere else to stay and certainly no money for a ship back to America.” She finally set the tea down on the table and wiped at her eyes. “When can I come back to the dig? I'm ready to begin work again. I need to, Howard.”

Carter shifted in his seat, cleared his throat nervously and looked anywhere but at Charlie's face. “About that, Charlotte. There's...well, there's just no position for you now. I hired Jack with the understanding that you were his assistant and not actually a member of the expedition.” He paused and stole a glance at her face, meeting her eyes for the barest moment. What he saw there made him crumple and look away immediately. “I'm sorry, Charlotte. Perhaps the Museum or the Society has need of a secretary or a clerk?”

Charlie stared at him in utter disbelief. “A clerk?” she said. “A secretary for some stuffed shirt? Are you joking?” Her voice was rising with shrill anger and she curled her fists up tightly in her lap. “I can read ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek better than ninety percent of the men out there in the field with you, Howard. I've got experience that no one but you and Jack have. I'm uniquely qualified for certain aspects of the dig. Who took all of your photographs, Howard? Who found the fucking Annex?”

Now, see here, Mrs. Taylor!” Carter shouted back, incensed at Charlie's vulgarity. “There's no call for that sort of language.” When they both calmed a bit, he lowered his voice and leaned forward. “You've been drunk for a month now, Charlie. Is this what Jack would want for you? For you to spend your days in a drunken stupor? To embarrass yourself in public like this?” He paused for a second and sighed heavily. “I'm not entirely heartless.” Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he removed an envelope and pushed it across the table to her. “I was just coming to give you this at the Shepheard. It should be enough to buy you passage to Port Said. Send word to your family in Colorado. I'm sure they'll wire you enough to book a ship home.” He looked at her for a moment longer, his heart breaking just a little bit more, and then stood. “Good luck to you, Mrs. Taylor.” Then he turned and exited the tea house, leaving Charlie staring at the envelope on the table in front of her.

She slowly gathered the money and stowed it away in her handbag. Then she stood and made her unsteady way outside, headed now for the train station. She felt numb, as if her head was stuffed with cotton batting and her limbs weighed down with stones. No job, no place to live, no husband, and a tiny new life growing steadily in her belly. “Oh, Jack,” she whispered. “How am I going to survive?”

Port Said, Egypt
Late May 1923

It started with cramps, worse than she'd ever experienced during her monthly flow. At first, she thought perhaps she was merely hungry, so she bought a kebab from a street vendor in front of the train station's entrance, but the cramping merely got worse and brought with it nausea and dizziness. Then she saw the blood and knew immediately what was happening. She was losing the baby and there was nothing she – or anyone else – could do to stop it.

She locked herself in the ladies' room and curled up into a ball on the cold, hard tiled floor and cried until she felt empty inside. That last remaining piece of Jack, the last bit of proof that such an amazing man had once existed, was slipping through her fingers. She flattened her hands over her belly and whispered an apology over and over, though she wasn't certain to whom she was apologizing – her baby, her late husband, or herself.

The cramps, the nausea, even the bleeding passed before the end of the day, leaving her feeling hollow and wretched. She picked herself up off the washroom floor, cleaned herself up as best as she could manage using the sinks and towels, and returned to her quiet little corner away from the ticketing offices and the arrival and departure gates.

She'd been living in the Port Said train station for nearly two weeks now, debating with herself every day whether or not to send word to her father in Colorado that she needed money to come home. Carter's advice to depend upon another man for her well-being still rankled and she stubbornly stuck to her guns. If she went home to Colorado, it would be under her own power, not her father's or any other man's.

She needed money and she needed it quickly. Aside from selling herself into white slavery or worse, prostituting herself on the streets, what could she do to earn enough for a ticket aboard an ocean liner? Her eyes fell to her luggage and the small wooden chest that contained a few artifacts she and Jack had kept for themselves. There were a few pieces of jewelry, a small statue, and part of an engraved tablet with a portrait of a Pharaoh who was having his heart weighed against Maat's feather. Perhaps if she sold them, she could earn enough for passage to America.

The next morning, ignoring the lingering hollowness and subtle ache in her belly, she left the train station, wooden chest in tow and headed into the native quarter of Port Said. She hadn't ever been in this section of the city and after having to ask directions more than once, she was thankful that Jack had taken the time to teach her how to speak Arabic.

She arrived at a small souvenir shop and presented two of the pieces of jewelry – a ring and a pectoral necklace – to the proprietor. He refused to believe that they were real and threw her out of the shop. The same thing happened in the next two shops and the one after that, the owner refused to allow her entrance. Apparently word was getting around that a crazy white woman was trying to sell fake relics.

She switched tactics after that, leaving the native quarter and venturing into where the Europeans lived and worked. She sold the pectoral in the first place she entered, the statute in the third, and a ring in the fourth. Now she had enough money to rent a tiny room with an actual bed and felt confident that by the end of the month, she would have earned enough to go home.

She struck out the next day. No one was buying now that they had the genuine article to copy over and over and pass off as a true relic. So she headed back into the native quarter, hoping to somehow convince the proprietors that she was selling the real thing. She headed to the very first shop she'd tried two days ago, determined not to leave until the owner had her removed by the police or she had convinced him that she wasn't trying to hoodwink him.

When she entered the shop, she saw immediately that the owner wasn't present. Instead, there was a huge Egyptian man dressed in a snow-white galabeya and a crimson fez. He smiled at her, displaying startlingly white teeth and welcomed her in Arabic. “As-Salāmu alayki,” he intoned in a voice as big as he.

Charlie smiled back – really, how could you not? - and said in the most formal way she knew - “Wa alayka s-salāmu wa rahmatu l-lāhi wa barakātuh.” Then she moved closer to the tiny counter behind which the big man sat and brought out the tablet piece. “Do you speak English, sir?”

The man nodded and the smile grew. “Yes, aanesa,” he replied, using the formal word for an unmarried woman. Her heart constricted in her chest when she remembered that she was a widow now. “I speak very good English. I am Ishaq al-Busiri. How may I help you?”

I'd like to sell this, Ishaq. I assure you that it is the real thing. My husband and I found in the Valley of the Kings two winters ago,” she said quickly, before he could voice any doubts.

Ishaq looked over the tablet and after seeking her permission, reached out and picked it up, studying it closely, turning it this way and that before carefully putting it back down on the counter. He nodded and then looked up at Charlie's face, studying her now with the same intensity. She forced herself to boldly meet his eyes and soon his pleasant face broke into a huge grin. “I think I know your face, aanesa!” He leaned across the counter, his nose now less than six inches away from hers. “Yes,” he announced after further scrutiny. “You were with the English Carter! I have seen your picture in the newspapers. You helped find Tutankhamun.”

Charlie blinked and nodded awkwardly. “Yes, we – my husband and I, I mean – were there with Carter.” She laid her hand on the tablet and lowered her eyes to it. “Will you buy this from me, Ishaq?” she asked, unable to keep the desperation out of her voice.

I am sorry about the death of your husband,” he said softly and to Charlie's horror, she felt tears forming. “Is this why you must sell your finds?” She nodded and he sighed heavily. “I must speak to my cousin, aanesa. He must approve the buying of artifacts. Come back tomorrow. I will know then.” Charlie nodded once more, gathered up the tablet and fled the shop. She went immediately back to her tiny room and cursed Howard Carter bitterly.

The next morning she presented herself at the shop again, only to find it occupied by not only the big man she'd met yesterday, but his cousin – whom she recognized as the man who'd thrown her out days before – and a very pretty, older woman dressed in a black abeya and hijab as well. Ishaq grinned at Charlie and welcomed her once more. She greeted him in return and smiled softly at the woman, who was introduced as Ishaq's wife, Farah.

We will buy the tablet, aanesa. And you will listen to a business proposal,” Ishaq said, making the statement sound far more like a request than a demand. Charlie nodded and Farah brought her a glass of tea and a small plate of bread with feta and some olives. The scent of the food reminded Charlie that she had not eaten anything since yesterday morning and it was all she could do not to wolf the small meal down in three bites.

You know where more finds like this are in the southern deserts?” Ishaq asked. Charlie nodded, her mouth full of bread and cheese. “You could take people there, for money, perhaps? And perhaps help them to find their own relics?”

Charlie swallowed and sipped her tea before answering. “You mean like a guide?” Ishaq nodded and Charlie grinned, thinking she was catching on to what he was proposing. “Yes, I could do that. But I would need a partner,” she realized suddenly. This was a male-dominated society, after all, and she was an unmarried foreign woman. She would need a man to act as the front for this little enterprise and that, too, rankled, nearly as much as Carter's insistence that she depend upon her father's largesse.

Ishaq would be your partner,” Farah said, drawing Charlie out of her thoughts. “He is well-known and respected with the Europeans and the government as well. He will do well for you, aanesa.” The way she said the last statement and the look that accompanied it made Charlie smile. There was a certain amount of threat mixed in with the words of praise. Charlie found herself taking an instant liking to Farah.

What my beautiful wife says is true,” Ishaq said with a tiny smile. “I will be a good partner and we would split our earnings fairly.” He paused for a moment, looking at Farah and then Charlie in turn. “I would take more because I have four daughters and a wife to support.” He looked like he was going to say more but thought better of it. Farah cleared her throat and Ishaq sighed softly. “Two of my daughters are grown and married so I will take less because of it,” he amended.

Charlie frowned softly in thought. She didn't really want to leave Egypt. She loved it here; being here made her feel closer to Jack and she was reluctant to leave. Maybe she would stay only long enough to earn enough to go home for a visit and then come back again. Finally, she nodded. “Yes, I think I would like to do this with you, Ishaq. But please, no more aanesa. You must call me Charlie if we're going to be partners.”

Farah smiled and gave Charlie's arm a delicate pat and told her that she would be staying with them until she could afford her own house. That night, after eating a huge meal and spending time getting to know Anippe and Merit – the al-Busiri's unmarried daughters – as well as Sumayyah and Pili, the eldest of Ishaq's daughters, and their husbands and Sumayyah's little boy, Saad, Charlie laid down on a soft bed in a warm home and felt hopeful for the first time in months. “I will survive, Jack. I will thrive here,” she whispered into the darkness just before she fell asleep.

Charlie's story will be continued in A Journey Of A Lifetime, the first book in the Ruins of the Past, Legacy of the Future series, coming in 2016.

Charlie's War, part five

Continued from here

Cairo, Egypt
November 1919

Despite her fears, Charlie slipped into the role of being a wife with ease. It wasn't a difficult part to play – their house in the London area of Kensington had been beautiful and came equipped with a cook, a butler, a gardener, a maid, and a chauffeur. The servants did most of the work, leaving Charlie very little to do domestically, so she threw herself into learning more about hieroglyphics, hieratic, Coptic, and modern Arabic. Jack was shocked at how quickly she learned the complex languages and soon was bringing work home, asking for Charlie's help with translations. Not long after that, she was accompanying him into the offices at the Egyptian Exploration Society, where he introduced her to George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the financial backer for the massive digs in the Valley of the Kings, and Gaston Maspero, Director of the Antiquities Department at the Bulak Museum in Cairo, and of course Jack's boss, Howard Carter.

Jack and Charlie impressed Carter greatly, reminding him of himself some ten years ago, when he'd first joined the EES. Carter immediately asked Jack and Charlie to accompany him to Egypt to assist in the as-yet unsuccessful excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Work had been continuing on and off in the area for nearly five years, and Carnarvon was getting impatient. Carter hoped that by injecting new blood and archaeologists newly graduated from school would help shake things up a bit and lead to the find of the century.

The Taylors didn't need even a portion of the week Carter gave them to come to their decision. It was a dream come true for both of them and they quickly sold their house, put their affairs in order – including updated wills reflecting their newly married status – and hopped on a ship that would take them to Calais, in the north of France, and then on a train that took them down to the tip of the Italian peninsula, then another ship that took them across the Mediterranean to Port Said, Egypt, and finally another train straight into the heart of Cairo.

The long trip ran together in Charlie's mind; one train station looked like another when one didn't actually leave one's sleeper car. But when she climbed down out of the train into the station in Cairo, she knew immediately that she was in Egypt. The mélange of languages that assaulted her ears – French, Greek, Arabic, even German – and the scents of dry, dusty air combined with foreign spices, frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood made her giddy. She turned to Jack and grinned up at him. “I can't believe I'm here,” she said in a hushed, awed voice.

Jack chuckled and leaned over to kiss the crown of her head. “You're here, Bunny. And next week, we'll be in the Valley of the Kings, with shovels and pick-axes in our hands.” He flagged down a horse-drawn carriage, loaded first his wife, then their luggage into it, and then asked to be taken to the Shepheard Hotel. Charlie grinned; she'd long dreamed of staying where Napoleon headquartered his army during his invasion of Egypt more than a hundred years ago.

Sandwiched between the Nile River and Ibrahim Pasha Street, the Shepheard Hotel commanded a beautiful view of the city and the surrounding desert from its storied terrace, lined with potted palm trees, wicker chairs and tables, and waiters dressed in pristine white galabeyas and crimson fezzes. As Jack and Charlie sat and sipped thick, syrupy mint tea, he told her a little more of the history of the hotel. “Did you know that both Henry Morton Stanley and T.E. Lawrence sat here?”

Lawrence of Arabia?” Charlie whispered in awe. She grinned and looked around, eyes wide with wonder and excitement as they fell on the Great Pyramid. “Did you ever think you'd sit here and see this view?”

Jack laughed softly, taking a great deal of pleasure in Charlie's excitement. “I did. But do you want to know a secret?” He leaned closer to her, putting his lips right against the delicate shell of her left ear and whispered, his breath warm and ticklish against her skin. “I never thought I'd be sharing it with someone whose beauty beggars that of the view around me.”

Charlie shivered and turned her face to his, kissing his lips softly to hide her blush. “I never, ever thought I'd be here, Jack,” she told him when they sat back in their seats. “Hank and I used to talk about traveling to Europe when we were older.” She frowned softly at the memory of her brother and blinked rapidly to deny the tears that those memories brought. “He would have loved this place,” she said quietly.

He'd be so proud of you, Bunny,” Jack replied in an equally quiet voice, reaching over to take her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. He knew how hard Hank's death had hit her, how much she missed him, and he wanted to do something to take away some of that heartache. Seeing her face light up when she first saw the Pyramids had helped, but he knew just how deeply that pain ran.

A pair of waiters brought their mezze and Charlie stared at it in wonder. She did not recognize anything on the plates in front of her. Jack took pity on her and pointed to each dish and described it. There was hummus, a dip made of ground chickpeas and olive oil and flavored with roasted peppers; fattoush, a green salad covered with grilled eggplant and zucchini and small pieces of toasted pita, which were small, round grilled flatbreads; tabouli, another sort of salad made with bulgar wheat, parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, and olive oil; baba-ghanoug, which was sort of like hummus, but made with roasted eggplant and sesame seed oil; and koubeiba, torpedo-shaped croquettes made from minced lamb and bulgar wheat and fried in olive oil.

Charlie sampled a bit of everything and was surprised and delighted to discover that she loved it all and had seconds, except for the baba-ghanoug, but then she'd never been a fan of eggplant. After the waiters cleared away their plates, they quickly replaced them with an astounding selection of desserts. “You're trying to make me fat!” Charlie accused Jack, who laughed and shook his head.

No, I'm just trying to introduce you to the cuisine of your new home,” he replied and then named and described every dish again for her. There was fakhfakina, which was a salad made with figs, pomegranates, apricots, and oranges, mixed with their juices and cream and served chilled; baked sweet potatoes, smothered with cinnamon-flavored honey; and qara’asali, a baked concoction of pumpkin, milk, butter, flour and sugar that reminded Charlie of Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.

I cannot eat another bite,” Charlie said after trying everything and going back for seconds of the fakhfakina, which she decided she could live off forever. “I think you're going to have to carry me to our room.”

Jack smiled. “I could do that. In fact,” he said and stood, reaching down to draw her to her feet before scooping her up into his arms. “Shall we retire to our rooms, Mrs. Taylor?”

Charlie giggled when Jack picked her up and buried her face in his shoulder. “I didn't mean it, Jack!” she protested. “Put me down!”

No, ma'am, I will not. You said I'd have to carry you and that is what I'm going to do.” Nodding to the people still gathered in the hotel's terrace and tipping a wink at their smirking waiters, Jack carried Charlie through the hotel and to the elevators, which took them straight up to their suite. Once inside, he gently threw her down on their bed, undressed her, and did to her what Napoleon wished he could have done to Josephine, if only the Empress was as brave and beautiful as Charlie.

Valley of the Kings, Egypt
November 1922

This has to be it, Taylor,” Howard Carter said to Jack, three weeks into their final season in the Valley of the Kings. “Carnarvon is giving us this last season to find Tut and if we don't, he's pulling our funding and we'll be out in the cold. Six years out here and only a few bits of junk to show for it.”

Jack glanced once more at the collection of evidence spread out on the large map table in Carter's tent. There wasn't much in the way of concrete proof that Tut's tomb existed – a few pieces of faience pottery, a bit of gold foil, and a small cache of funerary items that bore Tutankhamun's seal gave a little credence to Carter's theory that the tomb had not yet been found. And the tiny village of workmen's huts and the calcite jars with Akhetaten-era carvings found at the entrance of another Pharaoh's tomb last season indicated that there had been extensive work done in the time not long after the Akhenaten's city had been abandoned. Carter had used these tenuous threads to convince Carnarvon to give him one more season. “But now we have those stairs, that door, and Carnarvon must feel that we've found something important. He's here, after all,” Jack pointed out. Then in a hushed, excited voice said, “We've found him, Howard. We've found Tut. I just know it.”

Well, we've found something, that's for certain. I won't invite Fate to insert her heavy hand into the proceedings just yet,” Carter said with a small smile. “Tomorrow we'll know for certain.”

The group – comprised of Carter, Jack, Charlie and twenty Egyptian diggers – had begun excavating the workmen's huts on the first of November, uncovering the huts quickly and spending the next four days documenting them, before the dig beneath could begin in earnest. Late on the afternoon of the fourth, a single step leading downward had been uncovered; then by mid-morning on the fifth, twelve steps had been uncovered and suddenly, right in front of them, the upper half of a blocked entrance could be seen. With Charlie's help – since she was much smaller than any of them men and could fit into tighter spaces – Carter looked for a royal seal but could only find the seal of the necropolis. Still, the design was of the Eighteenth Dynasty and theories began to spin out of control – they'd found another cache, or the tomb of a major noble who'd built in the Valley with royal consent, or perhaps a place where the Boy Pharaoh's body and its most precious equipment had been moved for its safety, either from flooding or tomb raiders.

Carter had his diggers cover up the steps and left a small group of those he trusted most to stand guard while he, Jack, and Charlie went back to Cairo to make arrangements, and most importantly, send word to Carnarvon that his gamble had paid off. Early on the morning of the sixth, Carter had asked Charlie to send a cable to Carnarvon in England. She composed a short, fairly vague message: "At last have made discovery; a tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations." Three weeks later, on the afternoon of the twenty-third, George Herbert, the fifth Lord Carnarvon, and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, arrived at the dig.

Charlie was amazed at the English gentry. She had expected them to be snobby and cold and instead found them to be warm, generous people who worked right alongside Carter, Jack, and herself, getting their hands dirty and sharing meals with the natives. She and Evy – as the woman had insisted on being called – had even begun to form a friendship as both were happy to have female companionship in an otherwise male-dominated place.

The day after the Herbert's arrival in the Valley, the full flight of downward steps – all sixteen of them – had been uncovered and the expedition was faced with an intact door, complete with Tut's seals, which had been still been covered by rubble three weeks ago. The upper left portion of the doorway had been broken through by grave robbers, but the fact that the tomb had been resealed proved that it was not yet empty. Digging paused for a small celebration which lasted long into the night.

Charlie and Carter thoroughly photographed the door on the morning of the twenty-fifth and then it was carefully removed. A passageway emerged in the darkness, a passageway that was filled with limestone chips. The wind went out of everyone's sails, until Jack pointed out that the stones in the upper left portion of the rubble were of a different color. “Yes”, he said, “the tomb has been open and some things have probably been removed, but would they bother to go through all the trouble of sealing it again if it were empty?”

He's right, of course,” said Carnarvon. “This tomb has been broken into twice – probably once only a few years after it was sealed, and then more recently. The robbers could only have gotten away with small pieces; the holes through which they made their ingress and egress are far too small to accommodate anything else.”

The following afternoon had the entire passageway cleared and the group was once more confronted with a sealed doorway, identical to the first one. This door, too, showed signs that robbers had broken through. “I'm starting to think this is going to be another cache,” Carter said, “and not a tomb. The configuration is all wrong – the arrangement of the stairway, the entrance passage and the doors remind me the other cache. They found Tutankhamun's seals there, too.”

Well,” said Charlie. “There's only one way to know for certain. Open the door.”

With trembling hands, Carter made a tiny hole in the upper left corner. Darkness and blank space as far as an iron testing rod could reach showed that whatever lay beyond the door was empty, not filled in like the passageway they were now standing in had been. Candle tests as proof against noxious air were done and then Carter widened the hole a bit more and he peered inside.

Charlie reached for Jack and Evy's hands, finding them just as damp with nervous sweat as hers were. Carnarvon took a step forward, standing now very close to Carter's side. “Well, old man? Can you see anything?” he asked, finally unable to stand the suspense.

Yes,” Carter replied. “Wonderful things.”

The next morning, November the twenty-seventh, Carter and Charlie once more documented the seals and photographed the door before it was removed. The wall of the room – which was later called “the Antechamber” – opposite the entrance was piled floor to ceiling with gold. Couches, boxes, chairs, chariots, statues, and so much more, had been grouped together in barely organized chaos. On the right-hand wall stood two life-sized statues, presumably of the Boy King himself, standing guard over yet another sealed door that bore the signs of having been breached at least once before.

Carter, Jack, and Charlie began to look through the organized chaos of the artifacts collected together in the Antechamber. As they worked, Jack noticed yet another door – this one obviously breached but not sealed – hidden away behind the couches on the far wall. Since Charlie was the smallest member of the group, she was selected to explore what lay beyond. Carefully she crawled through the tiny hole, gripping an electric torch, leaving her husband, his boss, and his boss's boss behind, stooping and peering over her shoulder with breathless anticipation.

My God,” she whispered as she swept the room with her tiny light. If the Antechamber was organized chaos, this room – later called “the Annex” – was nothing more than pure pandemonium. Grave goods – faience pots, jewelry, a chariot, couches, chairs, tables, statues, even a small barque had been piled and tossed willy-nilly. There was no room for even tiny Charlie to maneuver in the mass of stuff. “It's so crowded in here,” she called out to Jack and Carter. “I don't know how we're going to document everything in here. There's no way we can do this in a single season!”

That night, Carnarvon, Carter, Jack, Charlie, and Evy sat down together to discuss the prodigious task ahead of them. Just clearing out the Antechamber would be a monumental undertaking. Each and every item had first to be photographed in situ, then sketched with a written documentation made on correspondingly numbered cards. Then the item was noted on a ground plan of the tomb. All of this had to be done before items could be removed from the tomb and loaded into wooden boxes to be transported by train to Cairo, where each piece would be further documented by the Cairo Museum’s curator. After this, the Curator would decide which pieces would be retained in Egypt, and which would be sent to the Egypt Exploration Society's other facilities around the world.

It's like a game of pick-up sticks,” Jack said around a mouthful of tabouli and pita. “How will we ever move those sandals, for example? They're being held together by 3,000 years of habit alone; the threads have all long since disintegrated.”

Carter nodded and sipped his tea. “It will prove to be a matter of extreme difficulty, but I've no doubts that we'll be able to make a proper go at it. We can undertake an elaborate system of props and supports to hold one object in place while another is removed. Then we can place them on stretchers, wrap them in gauze and bandages and remove them that way.”

Yes,” Carnarvon agreed. “That is a capital suggestion. We will use another tomb, perhaps Seti's, as a conservation laboratory, as well as a dark room for you to use in developing your photographs, Mrs. Taylor.” Charlie readily agreed and over the next seven weeks, the Antechamber was slowly emptied of its contents, including the two life-sized statues.

Finally, on February the seventeenth, 1923, the Antechamber was cleared and Carter began dismantling the sealed door that stood between the two statues. After approximately ten minutes of work, he'd made a hole large enough to insert an electric torch into. He was presented with a wall – floor to ceiling – of pure gold. “We've found the sepulchral chamber,” he said in an awed, shaky voice.

After the door and most of the wall surrounding it were removed, they discovered that the chamber contained a massive shrine made from wood, gilded with gold foil and inlaid with a brilliant blue porcelain – Egyptian faience at its finest. Charlie remarked later that it was the exact shade of her husband's eyes. The shrine was sixteen feet long, ten feet wide, and nine feet tall. There were only eighteen inches of clearance between the walls of the shrine and the walls of the chamber itself.

Over the next two months, work on the items recovered in the Antechamber continued. Carter and Carnarvon both determined that the conversation of these artifacts took precedence over dismantling and moving the shrine. As the group worked steadily, word spread of their amazing find, and soon the entrance to the tomb was surrounded by hundreds of tourists, newspaper reporters and photographers, and even a motion picture camera crew. When stretchers laden with artifacts covered in gauze were carried out of the tomb, the workers were met with cheers, applause, and the pop of camera flashes. Photographs of Carnarvon, Carter, Jack, Charlie, and even Evy were published in just about every newspaper in the entire world, making them instant heroes and celebrities.

Egyptian fever gripped the world, insinuating itself into every facet of life. Masses of mail and telegrams deluged the team, and people tried to use their money and their influence to arrange tours of the tomb. Even fashion and architecture began to reflect the obsession; clothing with ancient Egyptian influences began appearing in magazines from New York to Paris, and Grauman's Theatre in Los Angeles, and even Lenin's tomb in Moscow, were built with obvious Egyptian styles.

As the rainy season began in late March, work tapered off in order to protect the expedition from a plague of mosquitoes, whose bite brought with it the very deadly threat of malaria. Carnarvon received one such bite on his cheek, but it was not malaria that killed him on April fifth, 1923. It was a blood infection due to aggravating the bite by shaving over it that ended his life and his sponsorship of Carter's digs. It was also an awful foreshadowing of what would happen just a week later.

Charlie's War, part four

Continued from here

Michigan Creek, CO
December 25, 1918

Charlie woke up just after dawn on Christmas Morning and stared out over the snow-covered fields of South Park. The rising sun had stained the pristine snow pink and for a moment, she indulged in a childish fantasy that the snow would taste of fresh June strawberries. She could see the summit of Mosquito Peak and the waves of snow that were blown from it, looking for all the world like sea foam off a breaker.

Below her, the house was utterly silent, except for the occasional snoring of her father and the fitful fussing of Henry, Georgia and Junior's youngest. He was just a year old now and cutting some teeth, Mama said. He was generally a good boy, happy and laughing, but teething had made him grumpy and irritable, and his mother looked haggard and worn. Charlie wondered for a moment if Junior had been helping out at all and decided that she'd intervene on behalf of her sister-in-law.

But all that would come later, for this morning, there was cooking to do. There was going to be an enormous Christmas dinner later that day, with the mayor of Michigan Creek and his family, the Colonel, the entire McNamara family – including Al and Gwen – plus some of the other families in the community. There was a turkey and two geese, thanks to Jack, Charlie, and the Colonel's latest hunting trip, as well as a ham and bread and dressing and vegetables and sweeties enough to feed an entire army.

There was much to celebrate this Christmas, after all. The Great War had finally ended, and while Charlie's closest brother had been killed on the battlefield, many other families attending tonight's party had their loved ones home with them, hale and hearty and safe once more. The Spanish Flu epidemic seemed to be retreating, too; there were fewer and fewer cases reported every day, and it had been nearly a week since someone had succumbed to the illness.

Charlie rose from bed, washed her face and dressed quickly in a corn-flower blue calico dress and descended the stairs, tip-toeing past her parents' room and going to Hank's old room, where Jack had been staying since July. Charlie rapped lightly on the door and it soon opened, revealing a bare-chested Jack looking sleepy and mussy-headed. She grinned and stood on her toes to kiss him. “Happy Christmas, my darling,” she whispered against his lips and was rewarded with a one-armed hug, the other arm hiding somewhere behind the door.

Happy Christmas to you, Bunny. Did you sleep well?” Jack asked her as he ran expert fingers through her loosely-plaited hair.

Charlie snuggled against him briefly and nodded. He smelled incredible and was still warm and soft and pliant from sleep. “I slept wonderfully. Did Santa come to visit you during the night?” She tried to peek over his shoulder into his room, but his broad shoulders were blocking her view. On purpose, she thought, and tipped a suspicious look up at him.

He grinned knowingly down at her, his blue eyes sparkling. Her constant curiosity and slightly suspicious nature were two of her more endearing qualities. “Yes, but strangely enough, he didn't leave me anything.” He drew his other arm out from behind the door and presented a small, sky-blue box wrapped with a silver bow to her. “Apparently you were a very good girl this year. Look. It has your name on it.” And sure enough, in Jack's neat, copperplate printing was her name.

She bit her lower lip and took the little box, surprised at how heavy it was. She shook it and sniffed it, all the while looking up into Jack's face with a mischievous grin. “Hmm. Shall I open it now, do you think?” she asked. Jack nodded solemnly and she carefully untied the bow and lifted the lid from the box.

Nestled inside, on a bed of excelsior, was the most breathtaking pendant Charlie had ever seen - a huge oval-shaped opal, which was easily the size of Jack's thumbnail, surrounded by enameled flowers painted in blue and green, and scroll-work and flourishes lined with pavé diamonds. The setting looked like it was silver or perhaps platinum. Charlie gasped and her mouth went dry. How much this must have cost Jack! She looked up at him with wide eyes and saw that he was actually nervous. She realized that she'd have to say something and quickly. “It''s beautiful, Jack.”

Do you really like it?” he asked earnestly.

I love it, Jack. Really, I do. But...isn't it rather expensive?”

Jack chuckled softly and darted a kiss against Charlie's forehead. “Silly Bunny. Nothing's too expensive for you.”

She kissed him again and they parted, lest her mother, who had just risen – Charlie caught her talking softly to Papa – saw them together unchaperoned. Charlie darted another quick kiss against Jack's cheek and went silently back up the stairs to her bedroom, tucking the box away somewhere safe until that afternoon, when she could show it to her mother and sisters-in-law.

Some ten hours later, the house was filled with people, and food, and laughter. Dinner had been a thumping success and everyone had remarked upon how beautiful the decorations looked. Junior and Papa had found a huge Colorado blue spruce and dragged it back to the parlour of the house on Michigan Creek. It was decorated with silver and blue ornaments, white electric lights, and a sweet-faced blonde angel sat atop the tree, holding a lyre and looking a bit like Charlie. A mountain of gifts lay under the tree and the children in the house – including Charlie and her brothers – were having a hard time waiting until after dessert to plow into it and discover what that year's presents were to be.

After the pudding had been consumed, the brandy and tea drunk down, the party gathered in the parlour and presents were finally handed out. There were squeals of joy, gasps of surprise, and not a few tears of happiness from the recipients. Papa had given Mama a necklace with four stones in it – an amethyst for Junior, a diamond for Hank, a sardonyx for Al, and an opal for Charlie. Mama – and indeed all the mothers present – had been reduced to tears as she put it around her neck.

Charlie herself received new dresses and shoes from Mama, a bottle of Quelques Fleurs perfume from Papa, jade earbobs from Junior and Georgia, a pair of handmade, deerskin gloves from the Colonel, and a pearl and diamond brooch from Al and Gwen. But the most surprising gift of the evening came from Jack.

When everyone had opened their gifts and were chatting happily, Jack suddenly stood in front of the tree and tapped a fork against his brandy glass delicately, quickly gaining everyone's attention. He smiled at Charlie and reached his hand out for hers, drawing her up to stand next to him. “I have something I'd like for everyone here to share with us,” he said. “For the past six months, I have had the opportunity to come to know each and everyone here. You've been gracious to me, opening your homes to me, feeding me and caring for me. I feel as though I'm with family here and I'm grateful to you all.” He paused and then turned to face Charlie. Very slowly, he descended to one knee and fumbled in the pocket of his jacket, taking out a small black box. He opened it and held it out to her. Inside was a ring, a huge solitaire in a platinum setting, surrounded by smaller diamonds in a sunburst pattern.

Charlie's knees suddenly felt weak and she sank to the floor, tears filling her eyes and her heart pounding in her ears; she could barely hear Jack's next words. “Charlie, you're an amazing girl. You're beautiful, and funny, and so damned smart. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?” He took her left hand and slid the ring down her third finger as she nodded. Then she launched herself into his arms and kissed him. The crowd around her exploded into applause and cheers broke out.

Junior turned to Papa and said, “So that's what happened that day in your office! He asked for your blessings!” Papa laughed and confirmed it. Jack had finally worked up the nerve to ask Mr. McNamara for Charlie's hand – leaving him pale and shaky. And Papa had been utterly stunned that the heir to the fifth largest fortune in America had asked to marry his only daughter.

The celebration went long into the night, with everyone asking to see Charlie's ring and giving Jack hearty congratulatory thumps on the back and words of advice on how to tame Charlie. He told them all that he had no desire to tame her. He liked her fiery and wouldn't have her any other way. She was one of a kind, he told them. Utterly perfect and utterly unique in every way.

Michigan Creek, CO
June 15, 1919

Where are your gloves, Charlie? You can't get married without gloves.”

Oh, Mama,” Charlie said with a small amount of annoyance. “I'm not wearing gloves. It's so old-fashioned. Gwen and Georgia didn't wear gloves at their weddings; why should I?” She was tired of being fussed over, tired of people picking at her and poking at her, dressing her hair, applying make-up, insisting she wear this bracelet instead of that one, or this necklace rather than that one. She'd chosen to get married outside, in the middle of a mountain meadow because she wanted to avoid being all done up like a doll, but her mother and two sisters-in-law had taken over like matrons in a women's prison, shouting orders and pushing Charlie around.

Mrs McNamara gave her daughter a narrow-eyed look and carefully adjusted the fit of Charlie's brand-new dress. It was a beautiful creation, sleek and narrow-fitting, made of silk with an overlay of delicate ivory lace. It had short, cap sleeves and a daring, plunging V-neckline, but Charlie was young and beautiful and the dress made her look like a princess. But Mrs McNamara worried that she was showing off too much skin. Hence the necessity for gloves. She sighed and gave in; after all, Charlie had submitted to everything else she and Gwen and Georgia had demanded of her. “Fine,” she said to Charlie. “But at least wear some lipstick. And powder your décolletage.”

Yes, Mama,” Charlie said with a sigh of her own. She turned back to the mirror and applied a thin layer of peach-colored lipstick and carefully dusted her chest and cleavage with some sweet-smelling powder. Then she carefully put on her grandmother's triple-strand pearl necklace, matching earbobs, and a delicate Chinese cloisonné bracelet painted with orange and yellow butterflies. Her mother helped her with her veil, carefully attaching it with carved ivory combs into the up-swept loose chignon of Charlie's hair. Charlie rose from her seat at her mother's vanity and took a deep breath. “Well? Do I look all right?” she asked Mrs McNamara.

Mama took a deep breath and with a voice thick with tears said, “Oh, my darling girl. My angel Charlotte, you are beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Jack's breath will be stolen right from his chest when he sees you.”

Seeing her mother so close to tears triggered the same reaction in Charlie and she went and hugged her mother, closing her eyes and pretending just for a moment that she was six again and Mama's hug could make everything bad and scary in the world go away instantly. “I'm scared, Mama,” she admitted softly. “What if I'm a horrible wife? What if I'm an even worse mother?”

Mrs McNamara gently patted Charlie's back and then held her out at arm's length, giving her a soft smile. “May I tell you a secret, Charlie?” Charlie nodded and her Mama raised her hand to gently cup Charlie's cheek as she said, “I felt the same way just before Howard and I were married. And then just after Junior was born. And Hank, and Al. And definitely just after you were born.” She smiled and chuckled a little. “Every woman who has ever been married or become a mother has felt the same way. Yes, some of them have been horrible wives and awful mothers, but you come from a long line of amazing, strong women, and you will not be horrible or awful.” She gathered Charlie in for another tight hug and kissed her cheek before turning her loose. “I'll go find Papa and then we can get this show on the road!”

Georgia and Gwen, Charlie's bridesmaids, came into the room, looking beautiful and sunny in their pale yellow georgette dresses, wide-brimmed straw hats, and bouquets of wildflowers – black-eyed Susans, wild carrot, Indian paintbrushes, and alpine lupins. They oohed and ahhed over Charlie, wishing her well and giving her practical advice – don't forget to breathe, keep her eyes fixed on Jack's face, repeat exactly what the minister said, don't forget to smile and try not to cry and ruin her make-up. Then Mr McNamara entered the room and it was suddenly time to go.

Mr McNamara's car, a fancy Packard touring car – the twin to Al's, in fact – soon arrived at the meadow Charlie and Jack had chosen for their wedding. A small area had been roped off with yellow and white ribbons, and chairs – filled with family and friends already – had been set in rows right in the grass, which was filled with the same flowers that were in the bridesmaids' bouquets. Jack, Junior, and Jack's brother Jacob were standing together at the head of an aisle between the chairs. The minister, Reverend Doctor James Raymond, stood there as well, looking rather severe in his stark black robes, which were only slightly lightened by the purple stole around his neck.

Are you ready, Charlie?” Papa asked from the driver's seat, glancing into the back where Charlie was sitting, clutching her bouquet of black-eyed Susans, field daisies, and tasseled grasses. She nodded and he flashed her a smile before getting out of the car and going around to open her door to help her out. At that moment, the small string quartet started playing and Georgia and Junior's four-year-old daughter, Isabelle, started down the aisle, dressed in a white frock with a yellow sash, spilling handfuls of tiny white flowers onto the ground from a basket between her hands. Then Gwen, Georgia, and finally Charlie and her father made their way down the aisle and Charlie lost track of time and place, losing sight of everyone and everything... except for Jack.

Charlie barely remembered being led down the aisle, or her father handing her off to Jack – though she did remember her hand slipping into his, the rough callouses from digging, the sheer heat of his skin against hers suddenly made everything realer. She certainly didn't remember Reverend Raymond's brief words before Jack's voice broke through the thick haze of nerves.

I, John Moses Samuel Taylor, take thee, Charlotte Alma McNamara, to be my wedded wife,” Jack said, gripping Charlie's hands tightly in his own, his normally open and smiling countenance clouded and serious with the gravity of the proceedings. “I do promise and swear, before God and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” He paused for a moment and then continued in a slightly more confident voice, reciting the words to an ancient Egyptian love poem, “She is the only girl. There are no others. She is more beautiful than any other. She is a star goddess arising. She has captured my heart. We will remain joined until the end of years. We will remain together in the endless line of hours and not even death will part us.”

Charlie managed not to start crying when she heard those words though she could feel the hot pricking of tears at her eyes as she made her way through her Anglican vows. She paused and took a deep breath, fighting the tears but she was quickly overwhelmed by them. She made a few false starts with the ancient words of her own poem, but finally got enough of control of herself that she could speak clearly, albeit with a slightly damp voice. “My beloved is like a garden, full of beautiful papyrus blossoms and I am like a wild goose attracted by the taste of love. I will never leave you, my darling. You are my health and my life. My only wish is to stay in your house, by your side. We will always be hand in hand, and come and go together everywhere.” When she finished, she looked up and saw that Jack, too, was crying and the sound of sniffling from behind her and to her right proved that others had joined in.

They managed to quell the waterworks long enough to exchange rings and finally, Reverend Raymond pronounced them Mr and Mrs John Taylor and allowed Jack to kiss Charlie. He swept her up in his arms, held her close and kissed the living daylights out of her, drawing a blush from her cheeks and stealing the breath right from her lungs. The small crowd exploded into applause and cat calls and wolf whistles, the Colonel's Indian whoops of joy being the loudest of them all.

A long line of cars left the meadow, headed back to the McNamara's house on Michigan Creek for the reception party. A tennis court had been set up on the front lawn, and a croquet field in the back garden. The parlour had been emptied of its furniture and turned into a large dance floor while a sumptuous buffet luncheon had been set out in the dining room. There was hot bouillon, sprinkled with grated hard-boiled egg yolks; chicken jelly salad with mayonnaise; tiny bread and butter sandwiches; frozen custard in ice cups trimmed with white paper petals, so that each individual serving looked like a daisy; and small squares of sponge cake, iced in yellow and dotted with white candies.

Jack and Charlie danced together and with their parents, and Charlie took a turn with each of her brothers as well as Jack's, while Jack danced with Georgia and Gwen. The Colonel allowed Charlie to beat him at tennis – or so he said – and Mrs McNamara and Jack enjoyed a heated game of croquet. There were stories of the bride and groom told by their grandparents and aunts and uncles, toasts and beautiful speeches made by friends and siblings, and finally, it was time for Jack and Charlie to leave. They were spending the night in Michigan Creek's one and only hotel before leaving early in the morning for Denver, so they could take a train to New York City and board a boat that would take them to the Italian Riviera for their honeymoon.

Their goodbyes were bittersweet; after the honeymoon, they would be going immediately to London, and it would be some time before Charlie saw her parents or her brothers again. Jack had accepted a position with the Egyptian Exploration Society, whose headquarters were in England. He'd be working directly for Lord Carnarvon, the famous patron of most of Egypt's more lucrative digs, and alongside Howard Carter, an up and coming archaeologist who had a knack for finding untouched tombs.

Soon, Jack and Charlie found themselves alone in a plain but functionally furnished room at the Creekside Hotel. Charlie was horribly nervous about the wedding night, despite some rather practical advice from her mother and sisters-in-law. Still, she did have to admit to being excited about the whole affair. She loved the way Jack made her feel on the numerous occasions when he'd kissed her and touched her, always taking care to never push her to do something she didn't feel comfortable with.

Jack opened a bottle of champagne while Charlie changed from her wedding gown into a lilac-colored silk nightgown and a matching peignoir. He built a fire in the room's hearth to ward off the mountains' chilly night air, and stripped out of his tuxedo, leaving just his shorts and undershirt on. When Charlie slipped out of the bathroom and entered the bedroom, Jack gasped softly, his eyes growing as wide as dinner plates and a look she'd never seen on his face set her heart pounding in her chest. “My God,” he whispered. “You look heavenly, Charlie. Come here and let me kiss you.”

She went and melted into his arms, tasting champagne on his lips, feeling as though she was floating high above the Earth on a cloud of pure bliss as he ran his fingers through her hair and stroked her arms and shoulders. Then he carefully peeled off the peignoir, leaving a trail of hot kisses down her neck and out across her shoulders before scooping her up in his arms and carrying her to the bed. “I'll be gentle, my love,” he promised, his breath warm and ticklish on the side of her neck. “If it hurts too much or doesn't feel good, please tell me and I'll stop. All right, Bunny?” Charlie nodded and smiled at his pet name for her; she trusted this man, this bronzed God who was her husband, completely with her heart and soul, and now she was ready to trust him with her body.

Jack slowly, carefully undressed her, his expressions like that of someone unwrapping a longed for and much-desired present. His eyes never left her face as he drank in her pleasure and her excitement and when she nodded and told him she was ready, he lifted himself above her and took her gently, carefully. It did hurt – as her mother and sisters-in-law said it would – but at the same time, it was a good kind of pain, the sort of pain that promised to blossom into searing pleasure if she could just stand it long enough. And she found she could and was utterly overwhelmed as white-hot lightning stabbed at her when Jack drove her over the brink and into orgasm, again and again.

Later, drenched in sweat and utterly spent, they lay side by side on the room's small bed, curled up together in a boneless heap of intertwined limbs. Charlie's head was nestled in the hollow of Jack's shoulder and his arm was around her back, fingers sliding idly through her hair. “I love you,” he whispered in the dim light cast by the dying fire. “I love you more than I can ever hope to express. I love you more now than I did yesterday, but not nearly as much as I will tomorrow.”

Charlie smiled and raised her head, looking up into his blue-blue eyes. “Thank you,” she said, wanting to say more, to pour her own feelings into words as lovely as his. But she'd never been good at that sort of thing, so she settled for gratefulness and tried not to be disappointed in her words' lack of poetry.

For what? For loving you?” She nodded and Jack laughed. “Silly Bunny,” he said with a soft smile. “I couldn't do otherwise. Loving you is like breathing now. It's just as important as my heart beating or my blood rushing through my veins. Loving you keeps me alive.”

She moved closer to him and kissed him, feeling emboldened by his words, and let her hands roam over the firm planes and angles of his body, unfamiliar territory now but the terrain of which she very much looked forward to having intimate knowledge. Jack gently took her hands between his and showed her how to give him just as much pleasure as he'd given her earlier. They finally fell asleep just as the sun peeked over the Reinecker Ridge, throwing streams of yellow, salmon, and orange sunshine across the wide valley and through their room's lacy curtains. “Goodnight, Mr Taylor,” Charlie said through a yawn and grinned when she heard the response –

Goodnight, Mrs Taylor.”