A hundred hands shot up at once, sending Emma skittering back on her sensible lab shoes. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten she’d be liaising for the museum today—she just didn’t own anything fancier. Adjusting the lab coat she’d thrown on to seem believable, Emma gazed across the unblinking black eyes of the sharks in sweaters. The brief pause to collect herself lasted too long for the salivating masses, and they began to bark, demanding she explain herself and her work.
“That’s… I think we should… Yes, but I mean that—”
The single voice of reason in the chaos strode forward, a woman with the demeanor of a kitten but the tenacity of Ms. Frizzle. “All right, one at a time. Let’s let Dr. McKenna finish her presentation first.”
She braced for another groan, or a resumption of their rapid-fire question attack, but no, sixty probing eyes all swung to her at once and her tongue dried. In self-preservation, Emma turned to look over her shoulder at the carved relief gazing from behind thick glass. The gold had long been chipped away, by both time and thieves, but the strong cheekbones and sharp chin remained evident.
“This is a mummy from the eighteenth dynasty,” she said. “Based upon the arm configurations when entombed, we believe her to be of royal lineage.”
“Ooh, like a princess?” a girl squeaked out, every scrap of fabric on her body radioactive pink.
“Hush, Ashlynn,” their teacher scolded.
“A daughter of a pharaoh. Though most likely from a second or third wife,” Emma said.
“They had more than one?” a boy shouted, his face twisted in disgust.
Dread dropping in her stomach, Emma watched the teacher oscillate between fear and anger at the archeologist who’d just revealed the existence of polygamy to third graders. In a flurry, Emma focused on the display behind her. Despite her having assisted in arranging it for the public, she stared at the ‘princess’ sarcophagus as if she’d never seen it before. It had received the royal treatment and rested on the floor with mirrors positioned to aid in viewing it. Whoever was in there had been beautiful.
Hanging beside the sarcophagus were copies of the X-rays taken of the mummy inside. Not here. They’d been done years prior in the mummy’s real home back in Egypt. A daughter of a pharaoh in the eighteenth dynasty from a second or third wife was hardly much of a prize. Her tomb wasn’t ignored by time like Tutankhamun’s, nor did she come from any pharaoh of legend. In fact, little was known about this princess of Egypt.
What made her unmistakable to the public and beloved in the press wasn’t even contained in her sarcophagus. Emma turned to the canopic jar nestled beside two others. An even larger X-ray showed what had caught the imagination of archeologists and romantics the world over. Nestled in the clay pot was the mummy’s heart, the entire organ ripped in half and perfectly preserved as though it came fresh from a biology classroom.
The heartbroken princess was her new title for this life of celebrity after death. A woman stricken of life in her twenties, with a face that’d rival Nefertiti’s, and a mystery no one could explain. Who was she, and how had her heart broken without dissolving to dust?
“Miss, miss…?” a voice called from behind her. “How’d her heart break?”
“Love, duh,” a taller girl answered, her snort putting the definitive seal on that mystery.
Emma pursed her lips into a wry smile, wishing she could put that down in a journal.
After extensive research, I have concluded the mummy’s remains were split by love. No further questions.
“We’re not certain. There are quite a few theories. Some believe that a gas bubble could have built up inside the organ and, when it burst, ruptured it in half.” Highly unlikely as that’d also require bacteria, which would mean no more heart. “Or that salt could have dripped from the top of the jar and, over time, eaten away at it to form the cut.” Also unlikely given the image of the organ. On the X-ray, the cut looked almost perfect, as if a blade had done the damage.
“Psh, I know what happened,” a boy called, holding his elbow tight to lock his hand in the air. “Ninjas broke into her palace and stabbed her in the chest. Pow pow!”
“Aidan!” the teacher tried to chide him, but Emma laughed.
“An interesting theory, but there are a few problems. One, if you look closely here, you can see that her ribs remain fully intact. No sword chips or daggers stuck inside. And two, there aren’t any recorded sightings of ninjas in fifteen hundred BC.”
The children snickered at the idea of Egyptian ninjas, but anything was possible, even if highly improbable. Emma jerked her finger in the air, as if beckoning the children closer. “Do you want to know what’s really weird?”
One by one, they pressed closer to the waist-height glass barrier. It wouldn’t take much for her to leap over it and stand amongst the woman’s prized possessions. Though, an alarm would blare, the doors would slam shut, and she’d be facing a lot of armed guards.
Absently, Emma fiddled with her necklace while staring at the sarcophagus. “Egyptians in practice did not remove and mummify the heart. They thought it necessary for the dead to cross into—”
“Ooh, ooh, I know this one!” a smaller boy in Clark Kent glasses said. “Their heart will be weighed against a feather.”
“Yes.” Emma smiled, trying to encourage the budding archeologist. “The feather of truth will be weighed against the lies in their heart by Osiris. If their heart is lighter, then they may enter the Field of Reeds.”
“What happens if it isn’t?”
“Their heart is gobbled up by Amut, a creature with the jaws of a crocodile.”
A round of “Eww” escaped from behind Emma, but she ignored the teacher trying to stop the boys from threatening to eat one another’s hearts. Jangling her necklace back and forth on the flimsy chain, she watched the flicker of the emergency lights catch on the sarcophagus. If she turned her head, it almost looked like the carved wooden eyes lit up red.
Did they blink?
She shook her head, certain her imagination ran away with her. Still, her gaze kept flickering back to the carving even as she said, “It leaves us wondering, what made this woman special or infamous enough that her heart was removed so she could not enter the Field of Reeds.”
To be worthy of mummification was a high right, but to strip herself of the opportunity to walk into their heaven seemed mind-boggling. That carried even more theories than on how her heart had come to rip in half in the first place.
The teacher kept rounding up the kids into a tighter ball, no doubt wishing she could tie them all together with rope. “Let’s all thank Dr. McKenna, kids. Then we can go see the dinosaurs.”
Their forced chorus of “thank you” was stunted at the promise of dinosaurs. Wide-eyed, the horde made a beeline for the next exhibit and its massive stegosaurus skeleton. A sad chuckle rose in Emma’s throat, her attention turning back to the mummy.
She didn’t expect to hear her laugh’s echo but in bass. When she turned, a man walked up beside her. “In my day, mummies held far more sway than some dusty old bones.”
That rich voice hurled her back to her grad school days. Not the ones spent sweating in the sands, fearing dehydration or worse, but the cool, electric nights in the clubs as the hottest locals tried to suss out the newest American arrivals. Though he didn’t dress like the typical twenty-something douchebag of either here or Egypt. Instead of saggy jeans and a button-up tossed over a T-shirt, he looked like a man late for a Fortune 500 meeting. The pinstripe suit was so sharp Emma could have cut herself on it. A cane with a flat disc of gold at the top rested at his side, holding none of his weight.
Her eyes darted to his shoes to note the style of laces, then up to his buttons and cufflinks out of habit. The curse of getting her minor in historical fashion, with an advisor forcing her to emphasize on the Merovingians. It also helped her to avoid staring directly into his eyes while all her gray matter pooled into her spinal column.
There’s handsome, and there’s so handsome he hits beautiful then rounds back to rugged. That jawline was a hundred-percent bounty-hunter outlaw, ready to light a match for a stick of dynamite with a flick. It wouldn’t look out of place under a strategically dipped nineteen-forties fedora. But the nose was more delicate than lace. It reminded her of an elf’s. Yet his eyes were the most dangerous feature on his face. Emma feared if she stared too long into his deep brown wells, she wasn’t coming back.
And he’d said something to her. Something…funny? “I suppose if the Egyptian pharaohs had been twenty-stories tall with razor sharp claws, the kids might care.”
The man snickered, his full lips ticking up. A flush burned over Emma’s cheeks and she absently tugged on her lab coat, wishing its boxy shape didn’t hide her. Thank god for the round of reporters that had swept through for an interview and B-roll footage or she’d probably be in a ratty anime T-shirt under the coat. It’s a shame the turtleneck sweater isn’t a v-neck instead, that I can fill out. Emma tried to cross one leg in front of the other. That’s supposed to make a woman look coy and interesting.
Instead, it caused her to lose her balance and smack her elbow right on the edge of the banister. Sonnofa… The dashing stranger was too busy gazing at the banners they’d put up for the holiday and not the female archeologist wishing there was a tomb she could leap into.
“I am surprised at all the hoopla for a pile of dusty bones and New Kingdom pottery.”
New Kingdom? Emma’s ears burned at him dating the mass of pots and vases in the room. And he’s still looking at you. “Valentine’s Day,” she squeaked. “Love and…other stuff related to thereabouts. That’s today, so…” Turning, Emma flared her hands at the Heartbroken Mummy display as if that would explain everything. “Got to get the word out. Spend your day of romance staring at the corpse of a woman whose skin was preserved in a pack of salt.”
Oh god, what are you doing?
To her shock, the man laughed. “Then visit a restaurant and have the same done to your fish entrée. Forgive me, I have not introduced myself.” He brushed a hand to his chest and gave a slight bow. “Tarek.”
“Emma.” She found herself mimicking him and the flush stampeded into a full-on fire. The cursed flames reached to her toes, leaving her gawping in awe at the stranger. This is work, remember. “McKenna. Emma McKenna. Dr. McKenna. Emma.”
This is why your last ten dates were with dead people!
Tarek snickered, his lush eyelashes lowering while his cheekbones stretched into the stratosphere from the smile. “Emma McKenna,” he repeated, his accent turning her stupid name into lyrics.
“It’s as bad as it sounds. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. If they were thinking, or even cared and…” Taking a calming breath, she focused on the man. “Tarek…?”
“Ibrahim.” He laid a hand flush to his shirt, which was the exact hue of linen bandages. Wow, do not say that one aloud. “Also, a doctor, if you care.” In tugging away from his lapel, he caused a flower to tumble to the floor.
Without a second’s pause, Emma bent over and picked it up. The cheap carnation twisted in her fingers and she held it before the ruggedly beautiful man. On Valentine’s Day. Oh god. Heat in her face told her that her cheeks had turned redder than the flower, and she pushed it to him.