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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Heart's Demand
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She’d managed to be kissed a few times, but they had been hasty, furtive gropings carried out in dark hallways when she was sixteen and seventeen. If she’d been caught, her daring swains would have been whipped and maybe even imprisoned, and Kat had rapidly realized she couldn’t recklessly put a boy in such jeopardy. She’d halted any flirtations. So…she’d never had the chance to suffer such a giddy rush of pleasure.

Bryce Blair…Bryce Blair…
It was a fine name, befitting a very fine man.

CHAPTER THREE

Kat stood on Valois’s balcony. It looked out over the dark, meandering waters of the Nile. The moon was rising in the east. It was full and round, the desert air making it glow an odd orange color.

Valois was an impeccable host. The food had been delicious, the wine superb, the service excellent, but the company had been the most intriguing. Twenty guests had been present, an interesting mix of foreigners from many places on the globe. They were all travelers seeking something in Egypt they couldn’t find anywhere else.

The oppressive afternoon heat had cooled, and with the full moon shining down, she was possessed of an odd and urgent energy, as if she might commit any wild deed. She yearned to yank off her shoes and stockings, to run on the sandy shore. She’d let down her hair and strip to her petticoat, then jump into the swirling current.

It was a pretty picture to ponder, of herself alive with joy and verve. Of course she’d never behave so outrageously, but the tropical flowers and temperature were prodding her as if she was constantly being poked with a pin.

Footsteps sounded behind her, a man walking across the tiled verandah to the spot where she leaned against the balustrade. She glanced over her shoulder, relieved to see Mr. Blair approaching. So far he’d given very little indication that they were acquainted.

After he’d rescued her from her attacker, she’d assumed they’d established a bond. She’d been so excited to attend supper, to be with him again, but during the interminable repast he’d barely noticed her.

As she and Pippa had socialized before the meal, he’d been present but had hardly spoken to her. Then he’d been seated at the opposite end of the table so there had been no chance to chat. He’d spent the whole supper flirting with the women surrounding him, and Kat had been surprised to realize she was jealous and envious, which was ridiculous.

When the ladies had excused themselves and left the men to their port, she’d snuck outside so she could regain her equilibrium and control her careening emotions.

What was wrong with her? Anymore, no matter the issue, she flitted from one extreme to the next, never able to discover any middle ground in her attitude, wishes, or conduct.

She had no hold over Mr. Blair, and apparently they possessed no heightened fondness. She must have misinterpreted their prior encounter, and it was certainly typical. Life as a royal princess insured that relationships were stilted and awkward.

Yet here he was, and her heart fluttered with exhilaration.

He kept coming until he was directly in front of her, close enough that his trousers brushed her skirt. She wasn’t accustomed to anyone standing so near, but she wasn’t about to protest. The sparks she’d noted the prior day had already ignited, the air practically sizzling with anticipation.

He was dressed formally in black trousers, a black coat, a snowy white cravat. It was an expensive suit tailored from exquisite fabric, and she wondered if he’d brought it with him for adventuring down the Nile. It was a frivolous piece of clothing to cart along on such a trip, but she was glad he had. He was stunning.

She stared into his amazing blue eyes. The moonlight made them sparkle like diamonds.

“Hello, Mr. Blair.”

“Hello, Miss Webster. Katarina. May I call you Katarina? Will you swoon if I do?”

“As we’ve previously discussed, I’m not the swooning sort. Yes, you may call me Katarina. Actually my friends call me Kat.”

It was a heady moment for her. Only Pippa and her immediate family used her Christian name. Others simply weren’t allowed, and she was giddy with astonishment over taking such a bold leap.

“Kat,” he murmured and studied her. “I like it.”

“What may I call you?”

“Bryce.”

“Bryce Blair—a very masculine name.”

“Is it? I’ve never thought so.”

He stepped even closer so his leg was pressed to her own, and he eased her into the balustrade, her bottom wedged against the marble stone.

She was astounded by his brazen advance. She wanted to put a palm on his chest and push him back an inch or two, but her anatomy was almost singing with elation at having him touch her.

“You didn’t talk to me when I arrived.” She sounded as if she was pouting. “I decided you were ignoring me. Or perhaps we weren’t really friends.”

“I didn’t think I should hog your attention. If I’d spent a single second by your side, I wouldn’t have let anyone near you.”

“You’re flirting with me.”

“I definitely am.”

“I don’t believe I’ve been flirted with before.”

“With you being so beautiful? That can’t be true. Are the men in America idiots?”

“No, but my father was a ferocious ogre. Any possible beau was too terrified to glance in my direction.”

“I’m not afraid to look.”

He laid a hand on her waist, which was shocking. She felt overcome—by the heat, by the full moon, by his gazing at her so intently—and she slid away.

“You might be a bit too much for me,” she said aloud when she’d meant to keep the comment to herself.

“Too much
what?
” he asked.

“Too much man.”

“No, I’m betting I’ll turn out to be just the right amount.”

She laughed, and it dawned on her that it had been ages since she’d laughed about anything.

“Did you survive the assault all in one piece?” he inquired.

“I’m stiff from when I fell to the cobbles, but other than that I’m fine.”

“I’m relieved to hear it.”

“What happened to the reprobate who accosted me?”

He flashed his devil’s grin. “We probably oughtn’t to discuss it, but he won’t ever bother you again.”

“Thank goodness.”

Her nerves were getting the better of her, and she sidled away, but every time she moved, he moved too.

“Are you scared of me?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then why keep skittering away?”

“I told you you’re a bit much for me. I wasn’t joking.”

“Have you a father or brother traveling with you, Kat?”

“No, just my friend, Pippa. You met her earlier in the dining room.”

“Two females? How daring you are.”

“I’m a widow. My children are with me too. Nicholas and Isabelle.”

“How old are they?”

“Ten and twelve.”

“They’re waiting for you at the hotel?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to be back soon, do you?”

“No.”

She rattled off her lies with ease. Long before she’d fled Parthenia, she’d concocted an entire fake history she could recite if she was peppered with questions about her life or family. The only thing she hadn’t changed was their first names. She’d suspected it would be difficult to remember who they were and they’d stumble into fibs.

“Valois sent me to fetch you,” Bryce said.

“How kind of him to make time for me.”

“But I’m not delivering you just yet. Let’s walk down to the water. I want you all to myself for a few minutes.”

She peered over her shoulder. “Is it safe down there?”

“Is it…
safe
? I’ll be with you. There can be no peril when I am by your side.”

“You’re awfully sure of that.”

“Since I arrived in Egypt, I’ve been learning new tricks. I can now be deadly when riled, and I exude a definite sense of menace. No criminal would risk approaching me.”

She was positive he was correct and that she’d accompany him. Still though, she asked, “What if you’re wrong?”

“Then we’re both in trouble.” He held out his hand, and when she hesitated, he said almost like a dare, “Come on, Kat. Live dangerously.”

“I never have.”

“Maybe you should start.”

She snorted. “You’re teaching me an important detail about myself.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t imagine telling you
no
.”

“And you shouldn’t tell me that. It’s just a walk on the beach in the moonlight.”

“You have the most wicked gleam in your eye. I’m certain you’re contemplating much more than a pleasant stroll.”

“You’ll never know unless you come with me.”

He was so delectable, so impossibly vain and magnificent, that she shuddered to consider what sorts of mischief he might ultimately convince her to attempt. If she’d had any prudence remaining, she’d have refused to go, but apparently her prudence had flown away.

As if they were adolescent sweethearts, he linked their fingers and gave a slight tug. It was all the persuasion she needed.

They left the verandah, following the path to the river. Burning torches marked the route so it was easy to see the way. The sounds of the party faded. All she could hear was the breeze rustling the leaves in the trees, a few night animals calling to one another, and her pulse pounding in her ears.

The trail ended at an ornate dock complete with benches in secluded alcoves where a person could tarry and stare out at the view. Lamps twinkled from boats at anchor, but also from houses on the other bank. She was in the middle of a large city, but felt as if she was isolated on a sprawling country estate.

They sat side by side on a bench. Water lapped down below, a cool gust of wind riffling her hair. Their arms and legs were nestled together, and he was still holding her hand. It was the most intimate, thrilling moment of her life.

For a long while, they enjoyed a companionable silence. She was dying to open her mouth and blather on about topics she couldn’t address. She wanted to mention her father’s death and Kristof’s perfidy, wanted to mention how alone she was and how afraid that she was making all the wrong decisions.

She wanted to disclose how frightened she’d been in Parthenia, how shocking it had been to find herself without a single friend but Pippa. Her father’s family had competently ruled for centuries, but at the first hint of conflict, she and her siblings had been disavowed by everyone.

That was the most egregious disgrace they’d suffered, the discovery that they had no allies. She had to hope her uncle would be glad to see her, that he’d welcome her and offer to assist. Yet what if he didn’t welcome her? What if he wasn’t glad?

No, no, I won’t think about that
. Everything would be fine.

“You’re frowning.” He turned to study her.

“Was I? I’m sorry.”

“What is vexing you? You can confide in me. I’m a good listener and maybe I can help.”

“It’s nothing,” she lied.

“Tell me about your husband.”

“My…husband?”

For an instant, she was confused as to whom he referred, and she must have looked like a dunce, because he said, “You claim you’re a widow. Are you?”

“Yes…ah…he was a seafaring man.” His skepticism was obvious, so she added, “We were married young, and he drowned in a tempest many years ago.”

“You don’t say.”

“But let’s not talk about him. Let’s talk about you.”

He chuckled. “Why am I suddenly supposing you’re a woman of many secrets?”

“I have no idea.”

“You’re a very bad liar.”

“I am not. Lying, that is.”

“You shouldn’t lie to
me
. Your face is an open book, and I can read it clearly. Tell me why you’re really here to see Valois.”

“I already told you. I have to hire bodyguards and a guide to escort me to my uncle.”

“You’re bent on reaching him because…”

She glanced away, unable to hold his steady gaze. “He’s constantly invited me to visit, and I always wanted to. It was a perfect time to journey to Egypt.”

His chuckle grew to a full laugh. “We don’t have to chat about your troubles if you don’t wish to, but you should work on your story. If you’re going to make up facts, you should practice in the mirror so you can figure out how to appear honest and candid.”

They were quiet again, and she was bristling with the desire to divulge the particulars as he was urging her to do, but she couldn’t. First of all, it was humiliating to announce that she’d been declared a bastard child. And second of all, in the past few months, she’d learned not to trust anyone. Not
anyone
.

“After you’ve spoken with your uncle,” he said, “then what are your plans?”

“I can’t guess. It’s the reason I’m here. He’s my mother’s only sibling, and I need his advice on many matters.”

“Are you sure he’ll give it.”

No
. “Why wouldn’t he?”

He shrugged. “I’ve met some of the archeologists who are digging. They seem a tad…
obsessed
to me. He might not like to have a gaggle of relatives show up.”

“He’ll be delighted to see us.” She wasn’t at all certain he would be.

“Well…good. After you’ve located him, will you stay in Egypt?”

“I haven’t decided. It’s a topic we’ll discuss.”

“If you eventually depart, where will you go? Back to America?”

“I don’t know if I would sail the ocean again.”

“Is Europe a possibility for you?”

“Maybe.”

“If you settle in London, we might cross paths there occasionally.”

“That’s assuming you can scrape up the funds to leave Cairo.”

“I expect it will happen before too long.”

“Who is your family in England? Would I have heard of them?”

“No. I’m an orphan—although I’ve recently found a sister I’d lost as a young boy. We’re searching for two of my brothers too. There were four of us, but we were separated when I was five.”

“You have stories to tell too.”

“Yes, but mine are all true, so I don’t have to keep any of them straight when I’m sharing them with strangers.”

From his manner, speech, and mode of dress, it was clear he’d been educated and reared appropriately, and she’d presumed he was from a higher echelon of society. She’d been hoping he might have an ancestry that would make an acquaintance between them suitable.

BOOK: Heart's Demand
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