Last Breath: A Novel of Suspense

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9780345492258: Last Breath: A Novel of Suspense

From New York Times bestselling author Mariah Stewart comes a novel of sexy romantic suspense for fans of Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter, and Karen Robards.

You’ve taken your Last Look. You’ve spoken your Last Words. Now prepare to surrender your Last Breath in this tour de force of suspense, romance, and action.

As renowned archaeologist Dr. Daria McGowan readies the most important project of her career–a University museum exhibit showcasing the priceless artifacts her great-grandfather unearthed a century earlier in the Middle East–she makes a shocking discovery: many of the most significant pieces have vanished. Panicked, Daria turns to the FBI.

Solving the mystery is an assignment that Connor Shields is more than happy to accept: Daria is the same intriguing blonde archaeologist he’s had on his mind since their paths first crossed two years ago. Working together to track down the stolen artifacts, Daria and Connor discover a trail of bodies–collectors who have met brutal, bizarre ends at the hands of a killer whose murderous methods are based on the rituals of an ancient civilization.

Amid rumors of a curse and mounting pressure from both the FBI and the University, Daria and Connor race to unmask their enemy and unravel a mystery stretching across oceans and centuries. All the while, an ingenious murderer follows a sinister plan to gather the coveted antiquities and one last acquisition–Daria.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Mariah Stewart is the bestselling author of numerous novels and several novellas. She has been a RITA finalist for romantic suspense and is the recipient of the Award of Excellence for contemporary romance, a RIO (Reviewers International Organization) Award honoring excellence in women’s fiction, and a Reviewers’ Choice Award from Romantic Times magazine. A native of Hightstown, New Jersey, she is a three-time recipient of the Golden Leaf Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Jersey Romance Writers, of whose Hall of Fame she is an honoree. Stewart is a member of Sisters in Crime; International Thriller Writers; Novelists, Inc.; Valley Forge Romance Writers; New Jersey Romance Writers; Washington Romance Writers; and Romance Writers of America. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and two rambunctious golden retrievers amid the rolling hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

July 2007

Northwestern Iran

In the bottom of the earthen pit, two skulls lay side by side, their foreheads touching, eyeless sockets gazing eternally into eyeless sockets. A hand of bone lay across a forearm, and bony fingers rested on what had once been the cheek of a beloved. From above, faces stared down at the unique find, most definitely unexpected in this part of the world. Here one was more likely to discover swords and knives, perhaps the bronze or silver sidepiece of a horse’s bridle. In some graves, a beloved horse had been buried with its rider. But lovers buried together, still locked in an embrace, that was a find.

“Have you ever seen anything like this, Dr. McGowan?” Sayyed Kasraian, the excavation director on the dig high in Iran’s Zagros Mountains, crouched at the side of the opening.

“Never.” Daria McGowan carefully knelt beside the top of the pit, shining a flashlight on the skeletal remains four feet below. “Not just the positioning of the two figures, but the artifacts that were buried with them . . . it takes my breath away.”

She moved the light as a pointer.

“Look there, the one is wearing some type of diadem, from here it looks like gold and lapis, see how blue? And the breastplates, also gold . . . rings on the fingers of all four hands, so we’re looking at the remains of some very prominent lovers.” She looked up at the Kurdish laborers who’d accompanied them, and said, “Gentlemen, we may even be in the presence of royalty.”

Two of the men smiled; the third shifted uneasily and looked away, afraid, no doubt, of attracting the notice of any spirits that might still be lurking within the grave.

“And over here, see, glass bottles, dozens of them. They must have held water or wine or some type of oil that the dead would have wanted to take with them on their journey into the next world. And there, at the feet, see the bones?” She hopped into the pit, careful to land on the excavated area around the remains. “These appear to be canine.”

She directed the light onto the skull, and her companion studied it from above for several minutes.

“It does look like a dog, doesn’t it?” He smiled. “Well, that would be something new. I haven’t seen that before. Not in this area, at any rate.”

She knelt as carefully as she could to more closely examine the human remains.

“These two must have had a long and happy life together,” she murmured. “The teeth are quite worn. They were elderly—for their time—when they died. Definitely a man and a woman, judging from the pelvic bones.” She glanced up at the man whose face loomed above hers. “We’re so accustomed to finding the bones of battle-scarred warriors, that when something like this is uncovered, well, it just melts your heart, doesn’t it?”

The sound of a car engine drew her attention to the road behind the dig, and she climbed out of the grave as the vehicle pulled up and stopped.

She brushed off her hands on her pants and called to the man who had just arrived by Jeep.

“Dr. Parishan, come look! See what was found while you were back in Tehran at the museum having tea with your friends!” she teased the longtime friend of her father’s.

“I heard there was a find and got here as soon as I could. Daria, thank you for coming.” Under other circumstances the elderly man, the project director, would have offered a more gracious greeting to the American, whom he had personally requested join them on the dig, but he was eager to examine the contents of the grave. He reached the edge and stared down. “Oh, look at them . . . look at them . . .” he murmured reverentially. “Perfect . . . they are perfect . . .”

“So, Dr. McGowan, what is your feeling?” An obviously pleased Korush Parishan stood and brushed the sand from his knees. “On the site, overall?”

“I concur completely with Dr. Karaian’s assessment,” Daria said without hesitation. “The artifacts he’s already unearthed show such a vast mix of cultures, I can’t imagine that these people were anything but nomadic. We’ve seen the Indian river goddesses on the vases, golden goblets in the style of Bactria. The pottery bowls with the horned dragon, the god Marduk—definitely Babylonian. So here we have clear influences from India, Afghanistan, Mesopotamia. They all came together here in the mountains.” She pointed off to the east, then drew a line across the horizon with her index finger. “The Silk Road passed through this region. You’d have had travelers from China, India, Anatolia, Greece. Their cultures all intermingled through the centuries, which would account for the fact that some of the artifacts are of a different age from the others.”

She turned to the others and smiled. “This could be an amazing find. The rise off to your left looks as if it might be a likely spot to start. I cannot wait to see what else you might discover here.”

“Unfortunately, Dr. McGowan, you may have to postpone your participation,” Dr. Parishan told her. “As I was leaving the museum, I was handed an urgent fax to deliver to you, as well as a phone message from a Dr. Burnette. Forgive me, but I could not help but note that the message says it is imperative that you contact her as soon as possible.”

He removed a folded sheet of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to her.

Frowning, she opened it and began to read.

“Dr. Burnette is the president of Howe University back in the States.” Daria continued to read, then looked up and asked, “Dr. Kasraian, may I use your computer?”

“Of course. It’s on the table in the main tent. Please, whatever you need. . . .” He gestured toward the area where the shelters had been erected.

“Thank you.”

Daria went directly to the tent, her mind on the fax and its request that she return to the States immediately. Having to leave so soon was not what she’d had in mind when she arrived in Iran late last week. That the Iranians had invited a well-regarded foreign authority—and a woman, at that—to this newly discovered site was evidence of their desire to participate in the international archaeological society. It was of particular importance to Dr. Parishan that the rest of the world understood how seriously the Iranian archaeological community was taking its obligation to not only protect but to share and showcase their distinct cultural heritage. Like those of its neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s cultural treasures had been finding their way out of the country for years, legally and illegally. They were now determined to locate and safeguard whatever remained, and do whatever was necessary to recover those items that had, over the years, been lost due to an active black market in stolen antiquities.

Dr. Parishan had handpicked the team to work on this new find. He’d been unable to secure the services of Daria McGowan, a well-known expert in Middle Eastern archaeology, to participate in the initial excavation, but she had offered to come on board as a consultant as soon as her work in the Gobi Desert had been completed. To Parishan, that she was internationally recognized was the cake; that she was the daughter of an old and esteemed friend and colleague, Samuel McGowan, was the icing.

Daria returned to the others an hour later.

“I’m so terribly sorry,” she explained, “but I’m going to have to leave right away. Dr. Kasraian, could I impose upon you for a car?”

“No imposition at all,” he assured her. “I’ll have a driver take you wherever you need to go. But your family . . . there is bad news?”

“No, no. Nothing like that.” She dropped her duffel bag on the ground and slid a hijab around her shoulders. Once they neared the airport, she would use the scarf to cover her head to conform to Iranian law.

“Dr. Parishan, I feel awful about this.”

“As long as everyone is well. When I heard ‘doctor,’ I feared perhaps . . .”

She smiled to reassure him. “Everything is fine with my family. Apparently Dr. Burnette has been trying to track me down for several weeks. Dr. Parishan, did my father ever speak to you of his grandfather who was also an archaeologist?”

“Alistair McGowan, of course.” He nodded. “The man who found the city of Shandihar when no one believed it had ever existed. Your father told me his grandfather’s journal inspired him to follow in his footsteps to become the great archaeologist that he is.”

“Then perhaps he also mentioned that the backing for Alistair’s expeditions had come from Howe University?”

“Yes, I believe so. Your father has lectured there, correct?”

“Yes, Dad lectured often at Howe before he retired. When my great-grandfather returned to the States following his discovery at Shandihar, he went directly to Howe and brought all the artifacts he’d found with him. The university had supplied the funding, so the spoils belonged to them. At least, that’s how it worked at the turn of the century. My great-grandfather spent years cataloging the artifacts to display in the museum that Howe was building. Unfortunately, he died before construction was completed.”

“Yes, yes, this I have heard.” Parishan nodded. “But what does this have to do with you?”

“Apparently the university wants to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Alistair’s discovery. They want to put his findings on display, after all these years. Dr. Burnette has asked me to take charge of the entire project.”

Parishan’s eyes lit up.

“You would be designing the exhibits?”

“Everything, Dr. Parishan.” She smiled with dazed pleasure. “They want me to do everything. . . .”
“Everything?” Samuel McGowan asked incredulously.

“Everything, Dad,” Daria replied. “I can hardly believe it myself. I’m still pinching and pinching but I don’t seem to be waking up.”

“Well, that’s wonderful, sweetheart. Just wonderful! Wait till I tell your mother.” He put his hand over the phone. “Margarite! Pick up the phone! It’s Daria! She has the most amazing news!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Samuel, you don’t have to shout. I’m not deaf.” Margarite McGowan lifted the extension. “Daria? Is that you?”

“I’m here, Mom.”

“Where is here?”

“Morocco.”

“I thought you were in the Zagros Mountains with Korush Parishan.” Her mother paused. “How is he? He’s well?”

“Yes.” Daria opened the French doors that led out to the balcony off her hotel room. She pulled a chair close to the railing and sat.

“You’ve left Korush’s dig? We were so pleased when he invited you.”

“Yes, I was very honored.” Daria raised her legs, rested them on the rail, and crossed her ankles.

“So why did you leave so soon?”

“For heaven’s sake, Margarite, will you let her tell her story?” Daria’s father sighed. “Go ahead, sweetheart. Tell her.”

“Right now, I’m in Essaouira. At the Villa, just for an overnight. I’ll be flying out tomorrow and I’ll be—”

“You’re coming home tomorrow?” Her mother’s delight was apparent.

“I’m flying to London, then to New York, then to Myrtle Beach. I expect I’ll be there at the island by the weekend, but only for a few days.”

“So where are you going?” her mother asked. “And what was so important that you had to leave Korush’s dig?”

“I have an appointment on Tuesday morning at Howe University,” Daria told her. “With Dr. Burnette, the president.”

“Louise Burnette?” her mother asked.

“Yes. Do you know her?”

“I know of her. She has a fine reputation. Has she offered you a position?” Daria could all but hear the frown in her mother’s voice. “Are you thinking about going into teaching? Because if you are, you know, any of the major universities would be more than happy to have you. You don’t have to settle for such a small school.”

“I’m not going to be teaching, Mom.” Daria took a deep breath and explained to her mother what the trustees of Howe University had in mind.

“That’s . . . amazing. And I’m so envious I could weep.”

“Mom, you’re an anthropologist, not an archaeologist,” Daria reminded her gently.

“I know, darling, but I’ve always wanted to do something fun and exciting like that.”

“You’ve had your fun, Mom. Didn’t you have a bestselling book last year?”

“Well, yes, but that was—”

“And another the year before that?”

“Yes, but—”

“Wasn’t that fun?”

“Oh, of course it was. Part of the fun in living as long as I have, and traveling and studying cultures in all parts of the world, is getting to relive it all by writing books about it when you retire. But this, this is huge. You’ll get to open all those dusty old crates and take out those artifacts that haven’t seen the light of day in a hundred years. You’ll be the first person to handle them since your great-grandfather packed them away while he completed his inventory. Isn’t that what happened, Samuel?”

“What? Oh, yes, yes. My grandfather supervised the packing of every piece in the field, then unpacked each piece himself when he returned to Howe—of course, it was Benjamin Howe College, back then. Named for your great-great-grandfather. And my grandmother, Iliana Howe, was actually Benjamin Howe’s only daughter.”

“Where did the money come from?” Daria asked.

“Old Ben was quite the tycoon,” Samuel said. “Owned a bunch of munitions factories, around the time of the Civil War. Later, he invested in railroads and several other highly profitable ventures. Then, while some of his contemporaries were building mansions in Newport and New York City, he built a college on land he owned in Pennsylvania, named it after himself, then waited for the school to catch on. Well, when it didn’t, he knew he had to do something spectacular to draw attention to it. So he sent out two archaeological teams— archaeology was quite popular back in the day. Alistair went to Asia Minor—Turkey, now. The other fellow, Oliver Jacobs, went to Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It took Alistair four years to find and excavate his site. Took Jacobs slightly more. Alistair spent another eighteen months cataloging the artifacts, but the museum still wasn’t ready. He died from a lung infection in 1910, I think it was. Jacobs’s findings were placed in the opening exhibit, and my grandfather’s were left in the crates where he’d kept them while he completed his inventory. Years later my grandfather died, then in the 1930s, my grandmother. By that time, her children were grown and had set out on their own paths.”

“I don’t understand how a treasure like the one he reportedly found could have been forgotten like that,” Daria said.

“Oh, not so mysterious,” Samuel responded.

Daria heard the sound of a match being struck softly.

“Samuel, I heard that!” her mother snapped. “Put the damned pipe away.”

Ignoring his wife, Samuel continued. “Trustees change. Faculty come and go. Crates get pushed farther and farther back into the recesses of the basement as other items are obtained. Having served my time in academia, I understand completely how such things occur.” He puffed softly on his pipe. “Out of sight, out of mind. Over the years, the story is forgotten; the items, unseen for all these years, lose their allure. And there’s the tide of popularity. In one year, out the next. Back in the early twenties, Egypt became all the rage after Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered. Every museum was after mummies for quite some time.”

“Well, something’s brought Shandihar back into the foreground,” Daria said.

“The anniversary, I suppose,” Margarite suggested. “Did Dr. Burnette say when that would be? When they were planning to open the exhibit?”

“I’m sure I’ll find out on Tuesday.”

“You’ll call us when you arrive in the States?” her father asked.

“Of course, Mom. But right now I’m goi...

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