The Panther and the Pyramid
Graham Tristan has been tormented too long. He is physically strong: during his childhood exile, he rode
with the Khamsin—Egyptian Warriors of the Wind. He
has learned their code, is called The Panther. Now he has returned to his rightful place as the Duke of Caldwell.
And there is a new face—that of a woman—that haunts
Hair the color of blood. Eyes the color of emeralds. The memory threatens to consume him. In his dreams, this woman threatens all he seeks to protect, all he thinks to hide. She is more perilous even than the ancient treasure that draws him back to Egypt. This woman will uncover his heart.
"As searing and exotic as the desert sun, Vanak's sexy adventure boasts three-dimensional characters and a depth of emotion underlying a roller-coaster treasure hunt. Vanak is moving into the ranks of the finest romantic adventure writers with this thrilling read." —Romantic Times Book Reviews
"The fourth book in Bonnie Vanak's Egyptian series, THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID , is every bit as tantalizing and entertaining as the previous novels. Well written with dynamic characters, THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID has adventure, pathos, humor, and a growning romance. It's a worthy sequel to the pervious novels in this series." —Jani Brooks, Romance Reviews Today
“Author Bonnie Vanak has really pulled all of the themes in her books together for THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID. We have two courageous people, both victimized by life, who not only overcome their past, but triumph over it. Graham and Jillian have a difficult journey, but together they can conquer anything. This story captured my attention from the start and held it to the very last page.” —Paula, A Romance Review
“Author Bonnie Vanak returns to the land of Egypt in an exciting adventure that features Graham Tristan…This was an exciting sensual adventure of two enormously wounded people who for reasons of their own were destined to meet, to test, and to heal one another. With a very accomplished pen the author opens up and scrutinizes their very souls and psyche with vivid imagery…The well-fleshed out characters were complex with a myriad of emotions lying beneath the surface and were tweaked to perfection. Kudos must be given to the author who also gives one of the most emotionally selfless examples of a man proving his love to protect the woman he loved that I have ever seen. Bravo, for this extremely satisfying and sensual read I highly recommend!”
—Marilyn Rondeau (RIO), Sensual Romance Reviews
"THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID is another example of a finely crafted and tuned story of love, passion, treachery, and redemption. Told in brilliant tones and vibrant detail, Ms. Vanak tantalizes and enthralls the reader from the drawing rooms of England to the harshness of the Sahara, yet never letting the reader become bored or jaded. Exciting, sensual, unmistakably passionate and lively, the story of Graham and Jillian will warm your heart and engage your mind. THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID is a stirring story that can only be told as two fight a common foe for the love, joy, and the trust they can only find and give to each other. I heartily recommend you keep your eyes open for this exciting and satisfying tale." —Rose, Romance at Heart
"Bonnie Vanak continues her Egyptian series with a touching story of two tortured souls. Everything, from the settings, to the characters, to the impetus of Graham and Jillian’s actions is a compelling blend, designed to draw the reader in and hold their attention. And it doesn’t let you down. THE PANTHER AND THE PYRAMID is a richly told story of the healing power of love and forgiveness. You can’t walk away from this book without having had your emotions twisted and turned in some fashion or another. In my opinion Ms. Vanak’s has outdone herself. She tells the heart-rending and sober tale with compassion and dignity as no other could. Beautifully done, Bonnie."
—Connie, Once Upon a Romance
"The fourth late nineteenth century Egyptian romance is an exciting action-packed thriller starring a fine coupling as he is more Egyptian than English aristocrat while she is a daughter of the Ton making for a delightful pairing starting with their first sizzling encounter in the brothel and never slowing down. Though Jillian is too typical of the sub-genre, fans of historical adventure romantic epics will want to read this quality tale and its exciting predecessors (see THE FALCON AND THE DOVE, THE TIGER AND THE TOMB, and THE COBRA AND THE CONCUBINE)." —Harriet Klausner
"This is the fourth book in Ms. Vanak’s series about the Khamsin, desert warriors of the wind. I had not read the others, but will certainly look for them now. This powerful story won my interest and sympathies quickly and held them throughout. Romance, sex, violence, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil will keep the most discriminating reader turning pages." —Alegria, CoffeeTime Romance
"Lush, exotic backgrounds provide for a hypnotic setting. Despite the brilliant sunlight, the tone is rather dark much of the time. This is no gentle romance, but one where revenge and passion take center stage." —Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews
The Duke of Caldwell had chosen a most unusual way to lose his virginity.
Graham Tristan stood quietly in Madame Lafontant’s wine colored private receiving room. Sweat trickled down his back, gathered in the waistband of his fine buff trousers. Summoning all his courage, he faced the brothel owner and said in a quiet, commanding tone.
“She must be… untried. And not a redhead. My brother assures me your establishment is the most discreet in London.”
The saucy, chestnut-haired woman gave him a slow, thorough assessment. “Of course, Your Grace. I pride myself on discretion and filling the deepest desires of many of your peers. Your request was not unusual.” She paused and tapped an elegant nail thoughtfully upon the back of the horsehair settee. “That is why I sent my note. The type of woman you want just arrived. Not quite young. She’s 22. A honey blond. Very well-spoken. Quite lovely. Is that acceptable?”
A tiny puff of air escaped his lungs. Graham forced his face into an expressionless mask. “Is she a virgin?”
“Most assuredly. Of course, for such a jewel I’ll have to charge double.”
“Of course,” he murmured, his heart galloping with a mixture of excitement and dread.
Her corset stays creaked as she rose from the chaise. “Remain here and I’ll prepare everything. Please, make yourself comfortable. There’s brandy on the sideboard.”
With a swish of starched taffeta skirts, she whisked out the door. Graham ran a finger along the soaked white collar of his immaculate dress shirt. He eyed the sideboard with its gleaming array of crystal and decanter of amber fluid. He never drank alcohol before, either.
“There’s a first time for everything,” he muttered.
In three strides, he was pouring two fingers of brandy into a snifter. Graham gulped down the liquor, coughing violently. He wiped his mouth and set down the glass. Good God, he hoped sex was going to be a hell of a lot more pleasurable than drinking.
“Is there such a thing as a monkish duke? Or a dukish monk?” he asked himself and laughed.
All the debutantes who eyed him as the Season’s festive scads of parties and balls had begun, marriage glinting in their eyes at the thought of snaring the very eligible, very rich duke, would be scandalized to know he was as innocent as they were. A 28-year-old virgin.
But no longer. Knowing full well he’d hang for the crime he planned to commit, Graham vowed he’d experience pleasure in a woman’s soft arms for the first time. Tonight, no skilled whores who would surely detect his inexperience. He wanted a woman as inexperienced as he was, a woman too nervous to notice his awkward fumblings and hesitation. A virgin who would not ridicule him if last minute panic flowered and he decided he couldn’t bear to be touched after all…
Graham fisted his hands, staring at the scarlet silk-paneled walls. The man who robbed him of his boyhood was long dead. Graham had killed him in a duel with his scimitar, ruthlessly slaying him in payment for abusing him when he’d been taken captive by an Egyptian tribe at age six. But the other, the redheaded Englishman who wanted the same… He still roamed free. The man who promised a desperate 8-year-old if he wouldn’t struggle, and he would do something very despicable, he would free him from his tormentor and return him to England. Graham had closed his eyes, and sold his soul to the devil with red hair and green eyes…
And screamed in anguish after, as the man rode off in a cloud of dust, leaving him behind to face his laughing captor and the nightmare stench of the dirty, gray sheepskins grinding into his face each night…
His eyes flew open. “Never again,” he whispered fiercely. “I am not that same child.”
Abandoning the sideboard, he paced the fine wool carpet, trying to contain the agitation welling inside. Graham stopped, forcing himself to remember.
He would not be the only virgin in bed tonight. Surely his first lover would be very nervous. Think of her, he admonished himself. Focus on her.
His brother Kenneth, who had relinquished to him the title upon Graham’s return to England last year, had given him a few very explicit words of advice. He also loaned him even more explicit books with illustrations. “The key to arousing a woman’s passion is to make love with your mind, not merely your body. Woo her with words, not mere touch,” he’d suggested.
Woo her. Graham scanned the room and spotted a slim china vase holding a bouquet of fresh roses. He went to it, studying the blooms. Instead of a full dozen of one color, they were mixed. White, yellow, red and pink. How curious.
“Take one, please. You may give it to her.”
Madame LaFontant’s voice startled him. Graham frowned at the vase then glanced at her standing in the doorway.
“Why the different colors?”
A mysterious smile touched her mouth. But she gave a casual shrug. “I like color,” she said. “Go ahead, choose one to give to your lover.”
He went to choose and hesitated. Kenneth frequently gave red roses to his wife, Badra. Red must mean love. Graham knew no woman could ever love him. But the rich, deep crimson called to him. Maybe, just maybe, he could pretend love to make this very personal act less impersonal. If he added a white rose, it would minimize the meaning of the red.
“May I have two?”
Her smile deepened. “But of course.”
Graham hesitated and selected a long-stemmed crimson bloom, then a white one. As he withdrew them from the vase, a thorn pricked his thumb. Recoiling, he glanced at the scarlet dabbling his skin.
“Roses have thorns. It’s like life, Your Grace. The sweetness and the beauty come with a price.”
He sucked on his thumb and gave a wry smile. “I don’t mind paying the price, as long as I’m not entirely drained.”
She laughed at his double entendre and gestured to the door. Graham held the roses carefully in one hand, his heart hammering now with anticipation.
He fiercely hoped the nightmares would end tonight. Holding a woman in his arms, feeling her soft body beneath his naked one, plunging into her wet warmth… No more bitter shame or painful memories.
Tonight, he’d be a man at last.
Jillian Quigley was one step closer to a dream.
She touched the blonde wig, adjusting a stray curl. In this disguise, no one could identity her. Madame Lafontant’s establishment was discreet and paid its whores well. None possessed her most precious commodity.
Her virginity. Tonight, for 100 pounds cash, she would lose it. Anonymously. In the dark, with an uncaring stranger.
Hugging herself, she walked about the expansive room. An ironic smile curved her lips. Losing her precious virginity in a whorehouse, now wouldn’t that make Father howl with anger? His daughter he’d ordered to marry the wealthy Bernard Augustine, no longer possessing a saleable asset. Dull Bernard, who constantly cleared his throat and laughed when she began discussing Marshall’s economic theories.
After tonight she’d have money to sneak off to America. All her life she had one shining dream tucked into her heart. She closed her eyes, inhaling the dusty scent of chalkboards, hearing the bass rumble of the professor’s voice, feeling the hard wood seat beneath her. Two years ago, Harvard College created a women’s annex. Radcliffe called to her like a well beckoning a weary, thirsty traveler. Jillian itched to drink its knowledge. And unlike her father, the teacher wouldn’t reprimand her for being smart and a woman.
Long ago Jillian had vowed never to marry a man as emotionally remote as her father. College offered the only hope of escaping the gray shadows of her silent, oppressive home.
She went to the heavy blue brocade drapes drawn against the night and prying eyes from the street below. Her appreciative gaze swept the room, taking in the polished satinwood wardrobe, the delicate tables with their inlaid marble, the soft glow from the lead crystal lamps. Madame LaFontant specialized in pampering her wealthy clients with surroundings as elegant as their own domiciles and women who provided every fantasy their wives could not. She glanced at the bed with its rich, soft Egyptian cotton sheets, and shivered delicately. She hoped her client would be fast, indifferent and uncaring.
She just wanted to get it over with. And go on.
Jillian caught sight of herself in the gilded mirror above the gleaming dresser. The lovely peacock blue gown Madame had loaned made her appear exotic, almost attractive. Jillian fingered the low décolleté, flushing at how it revealed the generous, rounded halves of her bosom. Father insisted on her dressing modestly in dull gray. If he could, he’d keep her in sackcloth. Father’s invisible, dull Jillian, her reputation sterling, her morals rigid as his own.
Cosmetics altered her appearance; the shadowed eyelids making her eyes appear more blue than green. Dim lighting aided in the disguise. Besides, no one would expect to find the earl of Stranton’s daughter in a whorehouse.
Heavy footsteps, accompanied by a lighter tread, sounded on the wood floor outside. They paused outside her door, voices murmured then the lighter steps resumed, walking away. Jillian bit her lip and gathered her courage. Smoothing down the gown, she steeled her spine and faced the door as it opened.
Please don’t let him be fat, ugly or make any disgusting noises, she silently prayed. Last minute panic gripped her in an icy fist.
The door opened and her client stepped inside, slowly closing it behind him. He stood, hands behind his back, quietly gauging her.
Breath seized in her lungs. Jillian stared, spellbound.
She had prayed for a man not too ugly.
She didn’t expect one this handsome.
A shock of black hair brushed his starched white collar, spilled across his forehead. His face was classically handsome; yet strong with character in the tempered steel of his jaw line and the proud nose. His chin was firm and arrogant, but the mouth hinted the only softness with a full, sensual lower lip. A mouth made for kisses. Jillian pulled back, uncomfortable with the thought. Clearly, a nobleman of fine breeding.
He was of medium height, a few inches taller than her. But a hint of muscle showed beneath the finely tailored buff suit. His eyes were onyx, blacker than the night and they studied her as intently as she studied him. Dark, soulful eyes with secrets.
Fresh dismay coursed through her. She only wanted to get the deed over with and banish him to the deepest corner of her mind. How could she forget this man?
Her mouth went cotton dry. She felt awkward and uncertain. What now? She wasn’t sure what he expected. Let him set the pace. If he rushed forward, ripped off her clothing… her quivering hand stroked the beautiful blue gown. He had a commanding presence, but no cruelty shone in those dark eyes.
They looked… watchful. Speculative.
Finally, he spoke. “Hullo. I’m Graham.”
His voice melted over her like warm honey. Dark and deep, with a rough note. So masculine, and solid, like granite. So different from the men in her life. Strikingly solid, especially contrasted with Bernard’s pudding softness.
Jillian pushed back a lock of fake hair, hoping the assorted pins would keep it in place. “I’m Christine.” She gave him her middle name.
He nodded and approached, his heels making muffled noises on the thick carpet.
“I brought these for you,” he said softly.
A slight trembling affected his hand as he gave her the roses. Jillian melted like warm chocolate. She closed her eyes, inhaling the roses’ sweet fragrance. “Thank you,” she said shyly, opening her eyes to smile at her client.
A thoughtful look entered his eyes as he touched the rose petal then with the same finger stroked her cheek.
“Exquisite,” he murmured.
Graham took a rose from her hand and brushed her cheek with it. “An English rose, with delicate soft beauty.”
Her lips curved into an ironic smile, though her heart dissolved at his poetic words. “English roses have sharp thorns.” Jillian bit her lip, dismayed at her callous tone.
But he held up his right thumb, showing a small puncture wound marked with a rusty dot. “I’ve already found out. Wounded in the line of duty.”
She smiled. “You’re quite brave, sir, to risk your thumb to bring me such a gift.”
“Yes, quite right. Do you suppose the Queen will knight me for my courage?” A twinkle in his eyes belied his serious tone.
Jillian laughed, tension fleeing her. He smiled, showing gleaming white teeth. His entire face changed, softening the severe lines and making him appear boyish. It was such a drastic difference Jillian found herself utterly charmed.
And more than a little enchanted herself.
Graham took the roses from her hand and set them on a nearby dresser. The smile vanished, replaced by an intent look.
He framed her face with large, warm hands.
He kissed her, so gently she felt as cherished as a bride on her wedding night. Jillian closed her eyes and pretended.
Her lips moved beneath his, subtlety.
Graham deepened the kiss, drinking in her mouth, sipping and tasting. He curled one hand about her nape, holding her still. His tongue probed the closed seam of her lips.
Flicked lightly, tracing.
She opened to him like a flower unfurling its petals.
He slipped inside, deepening the kiss, tightening his hold on her nape. Like an eager adventurer, he leisurely explored her mouth, tasting and nipping a bit at her lower lip. Breath fled her lungs as she melted into him. An odd fullness pooled in her loins.
He broke the kiss, tearing his mouth away with ragged breaths. Jillian stepped back, a little woozy and startled. Her hand flew to her kiss-swollen mouth.
“Oh,” she whispered.
She hadn’t expected to be aroused by the act. Satisfaction gleamed in his gaze.
Knowing what was expected of her now, she reached for the fastenings on the gown. He slipped behind her and assisted. His fingers felt fumbling and once he uttered a low curse.
“How the hell do women manage these things?” he muttered.
Jillian gave a sharp, nervous laugh. “They have men do it?”
A warm chuckle blew on her suddenly exposed bare back. She shivered again as he slid the gown free. Her stays came next. She loosened the front laces with practiced ease and then shimmied awkwardly out of her chemise and under drawers.
And stood before him, naked and unsure.
And very cold inside.
Her body gleamed like alabaster in the dull glow of lamplight. Graham felt his breath hitch.
So beautiful. The face of an angel, with high curved cheekbones and a red, inviting, kiss-swollen mouth. Blonde hair hung down to her shoulders. The lackluster curls provided the only tarnish to her beauty. Huge luminous eyes met his. Blue? In this light, hard to tell. He guessed their color was a deep sapphire. Her breasts were full, tipped with rosy nipples. Pale and creamy skin beckoned for his touch.
Her hips were rounded and there was a slight curve to her belly. Her mound, he noted with surprise, was shaved, showing an inviting peek of the secret hollow between her thighs. The damp hollow he’d dreamed about, for him to sink into her wet warmth and feel a pleasure he’d never experienced…
Blood rushed to his groin, causing his slight erection to harden to stone. He dimly felt grateful for the reaction. The first hurdle cleared.
Kissing her had aroused him. He’d been pleased at her look of dazed wonder. Although he was a virgin, Graham had experience in kissing. The widow he’d visited once back in Egypt had been expert and taught him a few very pleasurable things, but when he’d started to undress to complete the act, he’d frozen.
That was years ago, he told himself, silently watching Christine blush to the roots of her blond hair. You can do this now. Indeed, his eager body assured him he could.
Graham sat on the bed’s edge and unlaced his shoes, and began to shed his clothing. When he stood, nude, a shiver wracked his body. He hoped she wouldn’t notice.
The last time he had stripped before another person… memories assaulted him. The dirty sheepskins, the stench of old smoke grinding into his nostrils. The wrenching pain from behind…
His harsh breaths filled the silence in the room. I can’t do this, he thought frantically. She’ll know. She’ll know!
Then a sudden, small noise jerked his attention away from his inner torment.
Graham realized it came from her. A tiny, squeaking sob.
He studied her, realizing she shivered more than he did. As if a severe chill, or fright, seized her.
His nervousness fled. God, she was more scared than he was.
Stepping forward, he took her into his arms and kissed her again.