Authors: Cheryl Holt
“Mama,” Sissy murmured.
Bryce put the statuette into her plump little hand and wrapped her fingers around it. Then he drew her into a tight hug. Both of them were crying, and Miss Wilson was weeping too.
“Mr. Etherton,” she said, “may we go? I can’t abide much more of this.”
“Yes, please be off.”
Etherton grabbed Bryce, and Miss Wilson grabbed Sissy. They pulled, having to yank the siblings apart to separate them. Miss Wilson lifted Sissy and hurried to their carriage. A footman helped her in as Sissy screamed and begged in her toddler’s language to stay with Bryce.
But the door was slammed shut, and the driver whipped the horses into a trot. They lurched forward and the vehicle rumbled away.
“Don’t forget me, Sissy,” Bryce called. “Don’t forget.”
Blessedly, Miss Wilson didn’t let Sissy look out the window, so Etherton didn’t have to have that final image in his mind. He tried to steer Bryce away, but the boy refused to budge, watching the fleeing carriage as if he was rooted to the ground.
Etherton glanced down the busy wharf. He didn’t expect Julian’s relatives would arrive to cause trouble. He didn’t think Bryce’s grandfather or uncle wondered about the fate of Anne’s children. The two despicable men had simply been determined to have her sent away so no claim could ever be made against the estate.
Yet with such fortunes at stake, Etherton couldn’t be sure what a malicious person might attempt.
“You’ll see her soon, Bryce.” Etherton’s lies were getting easier to voice. “I promise.”
“I told you I don’t believe you.”
“We must be off. We have many miles to travel today.”
“We’ll depart after Mother’s ship has faded from view.”
“It’s not safe for us to remain here.”
“I don’t care. What could happen to me that hasn’t already happened?”
It was an adult’s sort of query, and Etherton had no answer, but Bryce’s firm resolve was clear. He was five, but he was so imperious, so like his father whom Etherton had adored.
“I suppose we can wait a bit,” Etherton mumbled.
“Yes, I suppose we can.”
They stood together, gaping as the ship was moved farther and farther away. There were a few other stragglers on the dock, strangers who also had family members sailing to the other side of the Earth. They all appeared stunned.
“Might they permit Mother to come up onto the deck and wave goodbye?” Bryce sounded devastated and forlorn.
“No, I’m certain they won’t.”
Bryce nodded heavily, as if the cruelness of the world had just been revealed. A grueling half hour passed, and ultimately the vessel was swallowed up by other river traffic. Once it vanished, Bryce turned away.
“We may leave now,” he stoically said.
“Fine. Let’s do.”
Feeling awkward and aggrieved, Etherton started toward the carriage. He tried to take Bryce’s hand, but Bryce wouldn’t let him. Bryce was quietly crying, and Etherton was struggling to keep his own tears at bay.
He’d loved Julian so dearly and missed him so much. Anne had been Julian’s great amour and cherished friend, but despite their joyous marriage, Etherton had been closer to Julian than anyone. He’d known Julian all his life, and Julian had been the center of Etherton’s universe. The hole left by his death was too big to ever be filled.
Still though, he was compelled to say, “It will be all right, Bryce. You’ll see. At the moment, matters seem chaotic, but everything will eventually work out for the best.”
“You’re wrong, Mr. Etherton. My home is gone. My sister and brothers are gone. My parents are gone. Nothing will ever be all right again.”
“Who may I tell him is calling?”
Katarina—known as Kat to her friends and family—kept her expression carefully blank. She hadn’t meant to stumble over the surname of Webster, and her hesitation made her sound like an idiot.
Webster was her mother’s American maiden name. Since Kat was traveling in disguise and not eager to be recognized, it seemed the best choice.
In reality, she was Her Royal Highness, Katarina Victoria Sasha Morovsky, Princess of Parthenia. In ordinary circumstances, she would have proclaimed herself and used her title to obtain whatever boon or aid she sought. But her treacherous cousin, Kristof, egged on by his advisors, had revoked her status and designation. At that moment, she was no one of consequence at all.
She was staggering about, trying to figure out how to proceed in a normal fashion when the entire foundation of her life had been destroyed.
“Why do you request an appointment with Monsieur Valois?” the butler asked. “What is the purpose of your visit?”
“I’m newly arrived in Cairo,” she replied. “I was apprised that he is the person to approach when assistance is required.”
The butler studied her, obviously finding too many flaws to count. “Have you a recommendation?”
“A recommendation for what?”
“The Monsieur is an important man. He does not deal with anyone who will waste his time.”
“I need a reference to vouch for my…what? My character? My veracity? My position in the world?”
He gave a very French sort of shrug. “Any of those will suffice.”
Kat glared, her green eyes shooting daggers. If she’d been a male, she’d have pounded him into the ground. If she’d been lumping along in her usual condition, she’d have snapped her fingers and had him dragged off to the dungeons.
Well, not to the dungeons. She’d never behaved that way, but it was satisfying to imagine herself having some authority. At the very least, she might have demanded he apologize.
She took a deep breath to calm herself. She was now living as all common people lived. She was being treated as all ordinary women were treated, and she had to remember and accept that fact.
She flashed her most winning smile, the one that had once charmed royal suitors from all the minor courts of Europe. “Please inform Monsieur Valois that I am simply new to Egypt, and I am desperate to receive his shrewd advice.”
“On what topic?”
“I will be traveling to the pyramids to locate my uncle who is digging there. I’m hoping to hire a guide and bodyguards, but in such a foreign place, I don’t feel competent to handle the interviews myself.”
“Very wise, mistress.”
“I was told at my hotel that the Monsieur could suggest suitable employees.”
The butler studied her again, then nodded. “Wait here. I will see if he is available.”
The ornate doors of the grand villa were shut in her face, and her temper flared. She wasn’t invited into the shady foyer. She wasn’t offered a chair in the garden or a sip of lemon water to cool her parched throat. A dog wouldn’t have been so shabbily abused, and she’d just raised a fist to knock and give the rude oaf a piece of her mind when he yanked the door open.
“The Monsieur is busy today,” he claimed. “There can be no appointment.”
“But…but…you haven’t been gone five seconds,” she huffed. “How could you have spoken with him?”
“You come tomorrow.”
The door was already closing, and she was so furious she nearly wedged herself into the threshold so she could force him to display some manners. Yes, she was in Egypt, and yes, habits and routines were very different in the hot, dreary land, but she was positive no servant in any country—even in Egypt—was allowed to be so insolent.
She whipped away and stomped off, refusing to embarrass herself by begging for an audience. Apparently Monsieur Valois had resided in Cairo for ages and was the most savvy European in the city. If he couldn’t be bothered to confer with a damsel in distress, surely there was another man in the teeming metropolis who would be happy to assume the role.
She yearned to shout her true name, but she kept silent. Not because her cousin, Kristof, had ordered her to stop using her title. Not because she’d become a political pawn in his mad scheme, but because she didn’t want it known that she was in Egypt.
Kristof was insane, and she’d had enough of his devious machinations. He’d declared her deceased parents’ lengthy marriage null and void. Then he’d ruled Kat and her two younger siblings—Nicholas and Isabelle—to be illegitimate bastards. But his most grievous sin had been committed against Nicholas.
Nicholas was her father’s son and rightful heir to the throne, but he was only twelve. When Kat’s father had died a year earlier, there had been a few months of uncertainty as a regency was discussed for Nicholas. Who should help him to rule? Who should supervise him until he reached his majority?
Kat’s mother had perished birthing Isabelle, so for the prior decade, Kat had reared her siblings. She’d avoided her own marriage to stay in Parthenia and care for them. At age twenty-five, she seemed more like their mother than their older sister.
She’d expected to be picked as Regent, but councilors had vigorously derided the notion. As the debate had swirled, Kristof had seized power and crowned himself king. He’d installed his supporters in positions of authority and disinherited Kat and her siblings.
Kat was simply a female, from a very small, very peaceful country. She didn’t have an army. The kingdom itself didn’t have an army. She didn’t have legions of soldiers to impose a just ending for Nicholas. There had been no hue and cry from the citizenry to demand Kristof step down. In fact, he’d been roundly hailed for taking action, so she’d been forced to accept what had occurred. It had infuriated her, but she’d accepted it.
They might have remained in Parthenia, but a friend of her father’s had pulled her aside and whispered that Nicholas might be at risk from Kristof. Initially she’d refused to believe it, but gradually she’d decided she couldn’t discount the words of warning.
So long as Nicholas was alive and underfoot at the palace, he was a daily reminder to everyone that he was the lawful king, that Kristof was a deceitful usurper. It wasn’t the Middle Ages so the chance of a royal murder was very likely preposterous to consider, but Kristof was a fiend, and she would put nothing past him.
It would be simple for a twelve-year-old boy to be poisoned or suffer an accident. Who could ever prove that treachery had been involved? Especially with Kristof’s loyalists handling any investigation.
Kat would do anything to protect her siblings, and once she’d admitted that perfidy could transpire, there had been no reason to stay in Parthenia. She still had her own fortune from her mother’s dowry, so she’d had the funds to sneak away with Nicholas and Isabelle.
Her mother had been a fetching, elegant American heiress. On her grand tour of Europe when she was eighteen, Kat’s father had met her and made her his bride.
Kat’s father had been handsome and dynamic, and she imagined her mother had been swept off her feet by his regal proposal. But Kat had been fifteen when her mother had passed away in childbed, so they’d never had an adult conversation about her parents’ marriage.
It was entirely possible that her mother had been unhappy as a queen in a foreign land. She’d been pragmatic and level-headed, possessed of very American ideas about equality and egalitarianism. She’d scoffed over the concept of one person being better than another merely because of the blood in his veins, and she’d frequently waxed nostalgic about the life in America she’d abandoned.
Her only brother, Cedric Webster, was an archeologist who’d been digging in Egypt for decades. With Kat’s world in shambles, she’d decided to seek him out. He was the sole Webster relative who’d ever visited Parthenia, and he and her mother had been close. He’d help Kat, wouldn’t he?
She needed advice from someone she could trust. She needed to rest and regroup under her uncle’s watchful eye. She needed consoling from someone who would tell her she wasn’t crazed to worry about Nicholas’s safety. Most of all, she needed his opinion as to where she should go with Nicholas. London? Paris? Rome? Boston?
Was it necessary to put an ocean between him and Kristof? If that’s what it would take for Nicholas to be out of danger, then that is what she would do.
Monsieur Valois’s spectacular villa was nestled on the banks of the Nile, the long driveway leading to a busy city street. She’d rented a chair, and four natives had carried her to her destination. They had remained outside the gates and would convey her back to the hotel where Nicholas, Isabelle, and Kat’s friend, Pippa Clementi, were waiting for her to return.
She’d brought a parasol to shield herself from the sun, but she’d left it in her rented chair so the sun’s rays beat down unmercifully. She hadn’t walked twenty steps when the temperature began to be oppressive, and it occurred to her that she had to alter her wardrobe into one that was more suitable for the tropical climate.
She was wearing layers of petticoats, woolen stockings, a jacket, a tight corset, and the air was so heavy and so still that she felt as if she was suffocating.
The villa’s grounds were quiet, verdant, comprised of lush gardens of green foliage and fruit trees she couldn’t identify. She slipped under an arbor, pausing to fan her heated face, when she heard hearty masculine laughter, swords clanging, vocal jesting, and affable insults being hurled.
She crept farther into the foliage, pushing a palm frond away so she was staring out at a smooth patch of lawn. There were two men fencing, several others lounging in the shade and observing the combatants.
They spoke English with a British accent, and they were a bit older than she was, probably thirty or so. They were much the same size, six feet in height, with broad shoulders, muscled arms, and long, lean legs. One was dark-haired and one was blond, but they were both handsome as the devil.
They were in trousers and boots, their shirts off, their chests bared, and it was inordinately thrilling to see all that male flesh. Their torsos had been bronzed by the sun, providing stark evidence that they spent an extensive amount of time strutting about unclad.
She tried to imagine what it would be like to be so promiscuous with one’s person. In Parthenia, where the terrain was mountainous, cold, and snowy, people were always buttoned up from chin to toe, usually bundled in sweaters and coats.