Authors: Cheryl Holt
The street was busy again as if the inhabitants had been hiding until the spectacle ended. With the excitement concluded, pedestrians were rushing past. She and Mr. Blair dawdled in the middle of it, their hands still inappropriately clasped together. He seemed in no hurry to release her, and Kat wasn’t about to pull away either.
He exuded strength and power and ability, and just then it was exactly the kind of support she needed.
“Will you come into Valois’s villa?” he asked.
“I’m a mess, Mr. Blair. When I meet him, I’d like to present myself in a better condition.”
“I understand. Where are you staying?”
“For now, at the Hotel Cairo.”
“The European visitor’s sanctuary in the desert.”
“So I’m told.”
“It’s some distance away. How did you get here?”
“Porters brought me in a rented chair.” She pointed to the abandoned vehicle. “They conveniently vanished when I was assaulted.”
“Yes, that was convenient of them, wasn’t it?”
“They work at the hotel.”
“I’ll have a word with the management about it. I doubt they’ll be working there tomorrow.”
“You needn’t bother. I can speak up for myself.”
“Of course you can, Miss Webster, but you are a female and this is Egypt. May I escort you to your hotel? I’m determined that you arrive safely, and it’s obvious I shouldn’t trust the task to anyone but myself.”
She probably should have demurred, should have worried about his motives or intentions. As he’d mentioned, this
Egypt, and it was a renowned haven for slavers, criminals, confidence artists, pirates, and other low types. What if he was a kidnapper too? What if he had wicked designs on her person?
The inane notion flitted by, and she ignored it. He was courteous, faithful, and trustworthy. She stared into his mesmerizing blue eyes and was absolutely certain of it.
“I would appreciate it very much if you would see me to my hotel.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
He turned to a servant who was walking by and barked out a few orders in Arabic. Several men hastened to pick up her chair. They carried it over, and Mr. Blair helped her in. He rattled off another string of commands, and her new set of porters raced away at a trot.
They departed very rapidly and, suddenly panicked, she glanced around, afraid they’d left him behind. But he was jogging along at their swift pace.
“Stay with me,” she said. “Don’t let them go off without you.”
He flashed a grin that was devastatingly beautiful. “No, I won’t let them. I’ll be right by your side the entire way. You couldn’t be shed of me if you tried.”
“What brought you to Cairo, Mr. Blair?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Will you tell it to me someday?”
“I can tell it to you now.”
He was walking beside the rented chair that was carrying Miss Webster to her hotel.
He was incredibly intrigued by her. During her visit to Valois, she’d been unaccompanied by a maid or footman so she was either very brave or very foolish.
Valois had lived in Cairo for decades, having come exploring as a youth, but while he’d been away from France, the revolution had heated up, and most of his relatives were murdered. There had been no home to which he could return, so he’d remained in Egypt, preferring the rough and tumble city to the cold, dangerous palaces of Paris.
He was apprised of every event that happened in Cairo, instantly learned when Europeans arrived, knew when they were in trouble, knew when they needed help or advice. He traded in information and was often involved in unsavory and clandestine activities.
Bryce’s father, Julian, had come on his own adventure thirty years earlier. For a short while, he and Valois had been partners, and when Bryce had experienced his own series of disasters, he’d rushed to Valois for assistance.
Why had she sought out Valois? People never called on him for innocent reasons.
“I’m adventuring,” he told her.
“How wildly extraordinary.”
“I signed on with a group of acquaintances in London. My friend Chase Hubbard—I was fencing with him at the villa—convinced me I should.”
“And now that you’re here, are you glad you listened to him?”
Bryce shrugged. “Yes and no. My father traveled in Egypt as a young man. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
“Good for you, Mr. Blair.”
“But since I arrived, I’ve suffered naught but catastrophe. Valois has kindly let me stay with him until I can arrange to depart.”
“What catastrophes have you encountered? I’m only just arrived myself. Describe some of the hazards so I can try to avoid them.”
“Well, let’s see. Our boat crashed on some rapids and broke apart. Three fellows drowned.”
She gasped. “Seriously? You’re not jesting?”
“No. A few others contracted a fever and perished.”
“Mr. Blair! You’re scaring me.”
“Yes, it’s been quite scary. We were robbed of everything but the clothes on our backs. We were nearly slain by some villainous Bedouins. We were abandoned for dead in the desert and almost perished from thirst and starvation.”
“That can’t be true. No single trip could involve so many calamities.”
“It’s all true, I’m afraid. We started out with a dozen investors, and we staggered into Cairo with six men. Four of them had the money to head for England, and they left as fast as passage could be purchased.”
“What about you?”
“Chase and I spent our money getting here, then our meager reserve funds were stolen from us. We haven’t the means to leave so we’re still figuring out what to do.”
She peeked out at him, her dark hair gleaming in the bright light. It was an unusual shade, appearing to be a very normal brunette until the sun shone on it in a certain way. Then he noted that it was shot through with strands of auburn and gold. He’d never seen hair like it.
In her tussle with her assailant, her bonnet had fallen off and her combs scattered so the curly locks had tumbled down her back. Was she aware of it? She seemed a bit disoriented so she must not have noticed. He was being treated to a lovely sight.
Though he was pretending he wasn’t affected by her, she was extremely beautiful. At about five-foot-five or so, she was just the right height for a woman, and while very slender, she had curves in all the right spots. With her bright green eyes and dimpled cheeks, she was a joy to behold.
She was distressed though. He could sense it in her, almost as if he’d always known her, as if they were so intimate that he could perceive her fretting. Could he soothe her woe? Should he try?
From her speech and mannerisms, he suspected she was raised in high circumstances, and it had been a very long while since he’d encountered a real lady. In the months he’d been in Egypt, he’d met only whores and doxies so it was a very nice change.
She frowned at him. “I think I’m angry that you shared so many sordid details about your failed journey. If I was a timid, wilting sort of female, I’d likely have swooned.”
“I wouldn’t take you for the swooning type.”
“I’m delighted to hear it.”
“I spoke frankly with a purpose.”
“What was it?”
“It’s dangerous here. It’s a strange land filled with unseen perils we never considered. I’m concerned that you visited Valois without an escort.”
“I thought I was safe enough. The concierge at the hotel insisted I was.”
“He’s an idiot then, to send you off alone.”
“I had my porters.”
“Who vanished at the first sign of trouble.”
“Yes, they did, the blasted miscreants. They’ll definitely get an earful should I ever have the misfortune to see them again.”
“I’ve learned—in the worst possible ways—that nothing is as it seems in this country. Disaster can strike in an instant.”
“I realize that now.”
“Please tell me you won’t venture off on your own again. If you won’t give me your vow, I’ll worry constantly.”
She smiled a smile that was charming and full of mischief. “My dear champion, will you truly worry?”
“Every second—unless you promise to be more careful.”
“I promise. I called on Valois because I must hire a guide and bodyguards.”
“Clearly you need the bodyguards. But why the guide?”
“My uncle is in Egypt, digging at an archeological site, but I’m not certain of his exact location.”
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to discover. He’s an American too?”
“Valois knows everyone who’s important. He’ll be able to point you in the proper direction.”
“That’s what I was told. So you see, in my contacting him, I was trying to be cautious, but I was assailed before my retinue of guards could be put in place.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t reckless or negligent. She’d been seeking the appropriate assistance. There were modern, independent women who assumed they could behave however they liked, but they were riotously irresponsible and regularly got themselves into jams that men had to get them out of. Thankfully she wasn’t one of those thoughtless types.
The moment he returned to the villa, he’d speak to Valois. He’d be sure Valois provided whatever aid she required.
Much too soon, they reached her hotel, the porters carrying her under the shade of the impressive portico. They set down the chair, and he waved them away. Yet they hovered, hoping he’d toss them a few coins, but he hadn’t a farthing to his name, and he was galled by his own foolishness.
In London, he’d never been overly rich, but he’d always earned sufficient income to support his bad habits. He’d taken occasional jobs as a singer and actor, but he also gambled. He was a shrewd card player, but he’d never been addicted to gaming as some fellows were. So he never bet more than he could afford to lose.
Never for a single second had he ever been completely bankrupt, and it was a humiliating state of affairs to find himself penniless.
When Chase had suggested the trip to Egypt, it had sounded like a grand lark. Bryce had been at loose ends in London, feeling as if he was wasting his life, and he’d welcomed the chance to flee.
He’d grown up believing he was an orphan with no family or past worth mentioning. But totally by accident, he’d found the sister for whom he’d been searching for twenty years. As young children, she’d been Annie Blair, and he’d called her Sissy.
Now she was wealthy and settled, married to a viscount, and her name was Evangeline Drake, Lady Run. She’d helped him to fill in the blanks in his memory, to recollect who and what they’d been before tragedy had struck when he was five.
His father, Julian Blair, had been a viscount and would have one day been Earl of Radcliffe. Bryce should have been first in line to inherit that title. Instead he was standing on a dusty, hot street in Cairo and wondering how he’d ever leave.
If his sister could see him, broke, exhausted, irked beyond measure, what would she think?
It had been risky to traipse off with Chase Hubbard. His friend was a rascal and troublemaker, with no morals and a penchant for excess. Chase had a rough background too. His father was a French count, his mother the man’s favorite mistress. When he’d died, Chase’s French relatives had abandoned him quickly enough.
They’d paid for his schooling—that’s where he and Bryce had met as boys—but they’d never provided a farthing beyond that. Chase scrounged and gambled and swindled to earn his living, choosing to walk a more despicable road than Bryce in order to survive financially.
Bryce liked him very much, but didn’t trust him and never had. It was insane to latch onto any scheme Chase hatched, but he had—and look where it had landed him!
He’d disgraced himself by writing to Sissy to beg for funds to come home. With sea travel and mail so unreliable, he didn’t know if she’d ever receive the letter. If she did, she’d send money, but with the way his luck was running, it might be years before it arrived.
Valois had graciously allowed him to stay at the villa, but Bryce couldn’t impose forever. At least Valois was teaching Bryce some of the battle skills he should have acquired prior to departing London. If he’d had any idea how dangerous the journey would be, he’d have prepared himself a little better.
He hadn’t understood that he’d have to fight murderous bandits or rescue himself from pilfering brigands. Well, he was learning his lessons swiftly and thoroughly. The next time a miscreant glanced at him, he’d be sorry.
His father had been a tough, valiant adventurer and explorer, and Bryce could feel the man’s blood flowing in his veins. Day by day, he was more powerful, more assertive, more ready to protect and defend himself and others, but power and assertiveness didn’t pay the bills.
What to do? What to do?
It was the question he constantly asked himself now.
While still in London, he’d insisted to Sissy that he would never sing for his supper again. But perhaps he ought to find a European cabaret and revert to his old forms of employment. If he was singing and playing the pianoforte in a reputable business, no one would stab him in the back and steal his purse.
He reached into the chair and helped Miss Webster to climb out. The porters were still lurking, and she leaned in and murmured to Bryce.
“I’m not sure of the customs here, and I don’t know how you persuaded those men to carry me. Would they be offended if I compensated them?”
“No. I would have done it myself, but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t a penny in my pocket.”
She waved away his comment. “It’s not your debt. It’s mine.”
She opened her bag and pulled out a wad of money, and he nearly groaned aloud. She couldn’t have every greedy passerby realize she was flush with cash. With how she was acting, he would have thought she’d never been out on her own before.
He stepped in, shielding her hands.
“Don’t let everyone see your money,” he whispered.
Her eyes widened with surprise—as if the prospect had never occurred to her, and maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it was her first trip abroad, but then if she’d come all the way from America, she’d been traveling for ages. By now she ought to be more savvy.