Authors: Cheryl Holt
He picked out an appropriate amount and gave it to a passing servant who hustled over and distributed it. Other servants emerged from the lobby.
They recognized Miss Webster as a guest, and they began fawning over her, grabbing her parasol, her fan, motioning for her to follow them inside. They were all smiles, all obsequious submissiveness that was faked. The Egyptians who worked in the grand hotels were courteous and civil to your face, but you wouldn’t like to bump into one of them at night in a dark alley.
Miss Webster started after them, as Bryce lingered behind and shared a few harsh words with a servant who was in charge of the rest. He explained the assault, the porters who’d vanished. The man oozed dismay and apology.
He hurried after Miss Webster, and Bryce stood under the portico, watching her with a curious sort of nostalgia. He wanted to accompany her inside, wanted to escort her to her room to guarantee she was safely sequestered, but he didn’t really know her. No doubt a father or brother or fiancé was waiting for her to return.
Still though, he was a little irked that she didn’t bother to glance back. Yet just as he suffered the irritating notion, she halted and whipped around.
“Mr. Blair, aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“I was thinking the same about you.”
“It’s been marvelous to chat. Won’t you stay and join me for a cup of tea?”
He’d relish nothing more than to enter the fabulous establishment, to sit in a shady spot while the servants fanned him with palm fronds. He’d fill his eyes with odd, pretty Miss Webster.
But when he’d intervened in her attack, he’d been dressed in his traveling clothes, his shirt untucked, his trousers torn. He was sweaty and cross, and he was armed with a sword and a knife, both dangling from his belt. He had a small pistol in his boot too.
In light of his rash of misfortunes, he never went anywhere without it. He looked no better than a chimney sweep and felt no better than some of the brigands he’d encountered on the road.
He took her hand, bowed over it, and kissed her fingers.
“I can’t come in,” he murmured.
“Are you certain? I hate to have you leave. It seems wrong.”
Yes, it did. “May I visit another time? May I call on you when I’m in an improved condition?”
“Why yes, you may call on me. I’d like that very much.”
She smiled the most beguiling smile, and he caught himself falling into it, mesmerized by it. He wanted her to keep smiling at him and to never stop.
Was he smitten? How could he be? They’d only just met. But then there was no accounting for romance, and he’d always loved women. It had been a very long while since he’d had a chance to flirt with someone who might flirt back.
He’d definitely return at the earliest opportunity.
He stepped away. “Now I’ll say goodbye.”
“No, not goodbye. Let’s say, until tomorrow.”
“Yes, until tomorrow.”
She hovered, both of them eager to add something else, something more, but ultimately she spun and left. She climbed the three stairs into the lobby, the servants trailing after her. At the last second, she looked over and waved.
He nodded then hastened away so if she glanced again, she wouldn’t see him moping and dawdling like a fool.
He missed her already.
* * * *
“You were assaulted?” Pippa shrieked.
“Hush,” Kat cautioned. “Nicholas and Isabelle might hear you.”
“But assaulted!” Pippa hissed more quietly.
“A scoundrel on the street.”
“What was his reason?”
“Apparently it was a robbery.”
“Oh, my Lord, Katarina. Attacked on the street like a…nobody! Didn’t I tell you we should have stayed in Parthenia where we belonged?”
“Yes, Pippa, you did. A thousand times or more. And didn’t I tell you I was worried about Nicholas and we didn’t dare remain?”
“And didn’t I tell you that you were silly to fret over it? Kristof is insane, but he’s not smart enough to concern himself with Nicholas. He’s twelve. It would never have occurred to Kristof that he was a threat.”
“What if you were wrong?” Kat asked.
“I wasn’t,” Pippa staunchly declared. “I suppose your being molested by a villain hasn’t changed your mind.”
“We’ll press on to the desert to find your uncle.”
“To do what? Live in a tent and take baths in the sand? No doubt we’ll be eaten by crocodiles or stung to death by scorpions.”
Kat couldn’t completely conceal her exasperation.
Pippa had been Kat’s best friend for twenty years. They’d grown up together, had shared the same tutors and governesses and dance masters. Pippa was an orphan and Kat’s father had been her guardian. She’d been treated like a member of the royal family.
When Kat had decided to leave Parthenia, Pippa was the only one in whom she’d confided, the only one she’d trusted.
In the beginning, Pippa had agreed with Kat’s scheme, but as they’d journeyed farther and farther from home, Pippa had started to question everything. Recently her complaints were more spurious and annoying. Kat had offered to send her back, but she refused to go, claiming she would stick with Kat through thick and thin.
But with their finally arriving in Egypt, Pippa’s qualms frequently bordered on hysteria. She was positive they’d be murdered in their beds or sold as harem slaves in the local market. Kat’s encounter with the robber confirmed Pippa’s worst fears, and Kat wished she hadn’t mentioned the incident.
“Pippa, it will be fine. Uncle Cedric will be glad to see us, and he’ll help us however he can. Please calm yourself. Your constant chastisement exhausts me.”
“What if you’d been killed? Answer that, would you? What would have become of me and your brother and sister?”
“You have your instructions as to how you should proceed. You would deliver Nicholas and Isabelle to Uncle Cedric, then access the funds I set aside for you, and you’d return to Parthenia.”
“With you dead and buried! And me on my own and having to carry on without you? How is that a valid plan?”
“I’m not intending to pass away for many decades so stop fretting.”
They were at the hotel, in their sitting room that had a small balcony overlooking the Nile. It wasn’t the grandest suite available, which was what Pippa had insisted they request. But Kat was trying to be inconspicuous and not stir any gossip. It was odd enough for two women to be traveling on their own, and she couldn’t draw extra attention.
Luckily Cairo was a busy, hectic city with foreigners from all over Europe, so it wasn’t difficult to blend in. When she’d checked into the establishment, she’d told the proprietor she was a grieving widow, and it was presumed Nicholas and Isabelle were her children. So she probably shouldn’t have been loitering in the lobby and mooning over Mr. Blair.
“Did you speak with Monsieur Valois?” Pippa asked.
“No. His butler wouldn’t let me.”
Pippa bristled with offense. “Ooh, I can’t wait until I’m allowed to reveal your true status to all and sundry. I’ll inform that wretch of who you really are.”
“I’m sure he’ll be impressed,” Kat sarcastically retorted.
Kat might have been a princess with royal blood in her veins, but often when she talked about her homeland, people appeared confused over what it was and where it was located. She’d given up explaining.
“What now?” Pippa inquired. “You were hoping Valois would recommend an escort. I’m not stepping one foot into that desert unless we’re surrounded by an entourage of hale, burly guards.”
“I’ll call on him again tomorrow. I was thinking I’d write first and request an appointment, which I should have done anyway. From the rumors I’d heard about him, I assumed I could bluster in unannounced. I know better, and I usually have better manners.”
“He should be grateful to have you visit,” Pippa loyally stated. “He should be thrilled.”
“I’m just a lonely widow, remember? I’m the least thrilling visitor in the world.”
There was a knock on the door, and neither of them moved. They’d grown up pampered and spoiled, so they’d never had to open a door in Parthenia. It was a minor but silly change in their life situation, and each time Kat realized how out of touch she was with daily living, she was shocked at how isolated she’d been from reality.
She started to rise, then Pippa noticed, and she rose instead and hurried over. A servant held out a silver tray with a letter on it. Pippa tried to take it, but he insisted it was for Kat and no other. She motioned for him to enter, then shooed him out before she examined the handwriting on the front.
She couldn’t imagine who would contact her. No one knew who or where she was, and for an instant her pulse raced with alarm. Was it from Kristof? Was he about to order her home? But quickly, she saw that it was addressed to Katarina Webster and she relaxed. Kristof wasn’t aware that she was using her mother’s maiden name.
“Who is it from?” Pippa asked. “Who discovered that we are here?”
“It’s from Monsieur Valois.”
“The rude lout himself! How marvelous that he deigned to correspond.”
“Be nice, Pippa.”
“What does he say?”
“He’s sorry he missed me earlier today, and he’s very sorry about the incident outside his gate.”
“As he should be.”
“He’s invited me to supper tomorrow night.”
“Perhaps he’s not so bad after all.” Pippa hesitated, then asked, “May I accompany you? Am I included?”
“I’m certain it would be all right, but let me think on it.”
Kat didn’t like to leave Nicholas and Isabelle alone. She only trusted herself or Pippa to watch them. It unnerved her to have hotel servants or a hired nanny care for them, even if it was for a short interval.
“It’s just supper, Kat. What could happen if I go?”
“That’s what I thought this morning, and I was attacked in the street.”
“You claimed it was random.”
“We’d be away for a few hours. How could it hurt?” Kat didn’t respond, and Pippa begged, “Please, Kat? It’s been ages since I’ve had any fun.”
Pippa liked to dance and make merry. Of all the sins Kat had committed against her by convincing her to tag along, Kat most hated that Pippa couldn’t enjoy her favorite entertainments.
“Let me think on it,” she said again.
Pippa bit down whatever else she might have added. They both knew Kat would relent. She’d never been able to put her foot down about anything. It was the reason she’d had to flee Parthenia. She was a mediator and problem-solver. She didn’t like to fight or argue, and she had trouble saying
and meaning it.
She glanced at the bottom of the letter and smiled. Pippa saw it and smirked.
“Why are you suddenly grinning like the cat that spotted the canary?”
“Valois has a guest staying with him, a Mr. Bryce Blair.”
“How very British-sounding.”
“He was the one who rescued me from the bandit.”
“Was he tall, dark, and handsome? You have to tell me he was, and if he wasn’t, lie about it.”
“He was tall and handsome, but not dark. He had glorious blond hair and big blue eyes. He looked like a Greek god.”
“A Greek god? If you noticed, he must have been splendid.”
“He was.” Kat pointed to the letter. “He penned a postscript. He says he hopes I’ll come to supper.”
hopes you will?”
“We’ve been in Egypt for a whole day and romance is already blossoming.”
Kat scoffed. “Don’t be absurd. When have I ever been smitten?”
“Precisely. He’s not available to me. He’d have to be of royal blood.”
“Not anymore,” Pippa caustically griped. “Have you forgotten? Thanks to your despicable cousin, you’re no longer a royal person.”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
“You can flirt with whomever you like, and the great thing about being away from Parthenia is that there’s no one to order you not to.”
If only it were that easy. She’d love to be an ordinary woman who could be swept off her feet by a dashing fellow. But she’d spent too much of her life being counseled as to her rank and station, and even with that station revoked, she still heard those old voices warning her to be careful in her actions and attentions.
Besides, she might not always be disavowed. Kristof had quickly raised himself up, but he might just as quickly be cast down. Kat might have her title returned someday. Kristof had ruled that—because Kat’s mother had been a foreigner and a commoner—her marriage to Kat’s father was invalid. It had been the basis for declaring Kat and her siblings to be illegitimate.
Yet another king—Nicholas for instance—might decree otherwise. Another king might wish to have the prior heirs back in the palace. Even if that never transpired, even if she was never able to restore Nicholas to his rightful position, she would be busy rearing him and Isabelle. There would never be an opportunity for a frivolous endeavor such as amour.
Still though, at the thought of seeing Mr. Blair again, she couldn’t tamp down a flutter of excitement. He was the most dynamic man she’d ever met. In the short period she’d been with him, she’d felt safe, protected, and very, very happy. He’d seemed to enjoy her company too. They shared a potent, magnetic attraction, and she couldn’t help but wonder what it portended.
She looked over at Pippa. “I’ve made up my mind. We’ll both go.”
“Thank you, Kat! Oh, thank you. I’m suffocating in this room.”
“Let’s send for a maid. I want to buy new dresses that are more in line with the climate and temperature. And we’ll find someone to style our hair. Valois and his male friends will be very glad we’ve arrived.”
“I should hope so. You’re one of the most beautiful women in Europe, and I’m not far behind.”
Kat laughed. “We’re humble too.”
“And intoxicating. And rich. And mysterious.”
“Yes, yes,” Kat mockingly agreed. “I’m sure Valois’s guests will be enthralled.”
“I’m sure they will.”
Kat had never considered herself to be particularly vain. Nor had she ever been especially taken with any suitor. Her interactions with the opposite sex had always been vigilantly proscribed.