Authors: Cheryl Holt
“You’ve brazenly decided to call me Pippa—even though I haven’t given you permission.”
“I never ask women for their permission on any topic. I typically find females to be too silly to think for themselves.”
“You must be acquainted with some annoying specimens of the feminine gender.”
“I intend to call you Chase.”
“Oh, you absolutely may. In fact, I insist on it.”
“Even in company? Could I waltz into the parlor and call you Chase in front of the other guests?”
“Why not? I don’t usually stand on ceremony.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” she said.
“How about you? Do you like to stand on ceremony?”
“If the situation demands it, but I’m guessing our relationship wouldn’t be one of those times.”
He was growing more intrigued by the second. “How long are you and Miss Webster planning to remain in Cairo?”
Any minute now, she was expecting to receive a message from Kristof that she’d completed her assigned task and could return to Parthenia. Kat thought she was being discreet and furtive, but from the first moment she’d mentioned fleeing with Nicholas and Isabelle, Pippa had gone straight to Kristof and warned him.
He’d been eager to know where she went, who she saw, and what arrangements she made. He didn’t want her contacting supporters who might stir trouble over Nicholas’s being deposed.
Pippa was sending him regular reports, and as a reward for keeping him apprised of Kat’s location and activities, he’d offered Pippa her own apartment in the palace, an allowance, and an honored place at the king’s table during meals. He’d also promised to dower her so she could wed if she wished.
In a few short months, he’d showered her with more boons than Kat’s father had in twenty years. The instant Pippa had fulfilled her role, she’d depart for home, but until then she had to tread cautiously.
Kat claimed Kristof was insane, but
was insane to have left Parthenia, to have hauled the children with her. She was on a sinking ship, and Pippa wasn’t about to sink with her.
She liked Kat well enough, but Kat forgot herself around Pippa. Yes, Kat was royal and Pippa wasn’t, but they’d been raised as sisters, and Kat always ignored that pesky detail. She treated Pippa like a servant, and Pippa was tired of bowing and scraping to Kat, especially now when Kat had been stripped of her title and was no one of import.
The day Pippa was recalled to Parthenia, where she’d be lauded and compensated for her service to Kristof, would be the greatest day of her life.
“Since I won’t be here for an extended stay,” she said, “maybe we should hurry our association.”
“I was thinking the same thing. Would you like to walk down by the river?”
“Normally I’d say
but Kat and Mr. Blair are down there.”
“Are they?” He looked vastly humored by the notion.
“I wouldn’t like to bump into Kat. She’s a tad fussier than I am about how we should comport ourselves.”
“Isn’t she at the river with Bryce?”
“Yes, but she’d never misbehave.” Pippa sidled nearer, approaching so close that her dress brushed his trousers. “I, on the other hand, have no qualms at all about a little misbehavior.”
He grinned and clasped her wrist. “Follow me, Miss Pippa. There’s another spot that is exactly what we require.”
* * * *
“May I be frank, Miss Webster?”
André Valois stared across his desk at the young woman who’d sought his help. They were in his private office, and though Bryce Blair had tried to accompany her for the discussion, André had chased him away. He and Miss Webster were alone.
“I know who you really are,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m honored that you’ve graced my home, Your Highness.”
Princess Morovsky gasped. “You must have me confused with someone else.”
“Your father was a friend, so we needn’t play games. Tell me what you need, and to the best of my ability, I shall provide it.”
She studied him for an eternity, and André held himself very still, watching her, allowing her to decide how they would proceed. Through lengthy experience, he’d learned that most of what he hoped to discover would be revealed after an awkward silence. He had unlimited patience and expressive, coercive features that always succeeded in wearing people down.
Ultimately she asked, “How were you acquainted with my father?”
“I toured extensively before the Great Terror wrenched my beloved France apart. I stopped in Parthenia.”
“Have we met?” she inquired.
“Then how can you be so sure of who I am? I’ve been incredibly discreet.”
“Everyone has secrets,” he told her with a sly smile. “I never divulge mine.”
He’d lived in Cairo for decades, and local authorities were happy to let him deal with the troubles of visiting Europeans, so he’d personally dispatched her attacker. Just prior to slitting the man’s throat, he’d obtained the confession that explained the assault. The bandit hadn’t been a robber. A large reward had been posted for her capture, and he’d been hired to kidnap her.
After André had received that startling news, it had been easy to piece together the rest of the story.
? For a woman who thought she was being furtive, she wasn’t very good at it. André had once danced with her American mother at a ball in Parthenia, and her mother’s maiden name had been Webster.
“If you know who I am,” she said, “then you know I’ve lost my royal position.”
“I’m aware of your difficulties.”
“I’m no longer a princess so there’s no need to exhibit any deference.”
“I don’t feel that way. Your father was a king. It doesn’t matter what your cousin, Kristof, has decreed. You’re still your father’s daughter.”
“Thank you. You’re the first person who’s spoken kindly to me about it since I was stripped of my title.”
“The citizens of Parthenia are idiots.”
She was too polite to agree. Instead she said, “You won’t disclose my identity to anyone in Cairo, will you?”
“Not if you don’t wish it.”
“I don’t wish it.”
it is. What assistance do you seek?”
“My mother’s brother, Cedric Webster, is digging in the pyramids. I shall travel to his camp and stay with him for a bit.”
“I’ve met Monsieur Webster.”
“Are you familiar with his whereabouts?”
“Yes. If you hire a boat and sail on the river, it’s a three-day journey from here.”
“I’m relieved that it’s nearby.”
Her anxiety was visible, her nerves at a raw edge. She was brave to have come so far, to have plotted and schemed to protect her brother, and she’d accomplished it with no support from those who should have aided her.
There had been ghastly rumors about the coup in Parthenia. Kristof was an incompetent malingerer with visions of grandeur about his intellect and abilities. If there was any justice in the world—and typically there wasn’t—the people of Parthenia would get sick of him quickly enough.
If André had been younger and more reckless, he might have offered to help restore her brother to the throne, but an aristocratic life could be hazardous—as his own kin had learned in a murderous way. All his relatives had had their heads chopped off by the guillotine. Luckily he’d been sightseeing in Egypt when the tragedy had occurred, which was the only reason he was still walking around and breathing the sultry desert air.
“I should like to continue on to my uncle’s site,” she said, “so I must hire a guide and some bodyguards. I was hoping for recommendations from you.”
“I can supply you with the men you need, but I must ask—as an old friend of your father’s—what are your plans after you’ve conferred with your uncle?”
“I have no plans after that. I’m out of options and ideas. If you have advice to share about my predicament, I would love to hear it.”
André reflected on the kidnapper who had almost succeeded. Did she realize she was being followed? He didn’t suppose she did. Was it his place to apprise her? Should he involve himself in her troubles? He couldn’t fix the issues plaguing her, and if he became an ally, he’d have his own issues with Kristof Morovsky who had spies working in Cairo.
Every European André encountered in Egypt was in the midst of a catastrophe. It was the general situation for everyone. They didn’t bring enough money, didn’t comprehend the dangers, weren’t ready for the harsh conditions, the peculiar customs, or problems with the language.
He dealt in information and secrets, but he kept his distance and never grew entangled in any mess. Though Princess Morovsky was a royal, and André had considered her father a friend, she was no different than any other beleaguered traveler who staggered through his door.
He would suggest, he would listen, but he wouldn’t actually do much of anything for her.
He said, “You were prudent to remove your brother from Kristof’s custody and control.”
“I appreciate you telling me. I’ve been conflicted as to whether it was the right decision.”
“It was, but I have no counsel to offer beyond that comment. I haven’t a clue how you should carry on. I’m certain your uncle will prove himself wiser than I am.”
“You seem quite wise to me, Monsieur Valois.”
“You’re very kind, and in this circumstance—when you have few viable alternatives—perhaps we should pray that Kristof meets with an early and bad end.”
“Monsieur Valois! I would never pray for my cousin’s rapid demise.”
“I will pray for you.”
She smiled. “You’re horrid.”
“I can be when the occasion calls for it.” He smiled too. “Have you worried that there are men following you?”
“Yes, but I was very careful when I fled Parthenia, and I haven’t noticed anyone who looks suspicious. I’ve constantly been on alert.”
“I’m afraid your attacker might have been attempting to kidnap you.”
She frowned. “You can’t be sure of that, can you? Kristof would be the only one who might bother to order it, but I’m positive he was glad to find us gone.”
He shrugged. “It was an odd and unprovoked assault.”
“I thought it was a robbery. Are you claiming it might not have been?”
“I claim nothing. I simply warn you to be on guard.”
“Believe me, I am on guard every second.”
“Yet your brother and sister are with servants at the hotel while
are here enjoying my entertainment.”
“I wouldn’t have left them alone if it had occurred to me that they might be in danger.”
“I’m not saying they are.”
“Then what are you saying?” Appearing frightened and furious, she leapt to her feet. “I hope you’ll excuse me, Monsieur, but I must return to my lodging at once.”
“But of course.” She spun to go, and he added, “I will send a retinue of men to you in the morning. They will provide all the services you require. Can you be prepared to depart by nine?”
“Have you funds to pay the costs, Princess? Since you’ve journeyed so far, I’m assuming you do.”
“Yes, I have funds.”
“They will expect an acceptable wage, and there will be a small fee added for my efforts on your behalf.”
“That’s fine. I have no idea what would be a suitable amount, so I’ll trust you to set it.”
“I’ll have my clerk contact you about all of it.”
“I’ll speak with him the minute he arrives.”
She nodded so imperiously that he wondered how she’d conceal her identity for long. He rose and tipped his head to her. He probably should have been more deferential, should have performed a bow and remained standing until she’d exited, but she’d insisted she was Miss Webster, so he’d treat her as if she was.
“Good evening,” she said.
“Yes, thank you for coming. It has been my pleasure.”
She was already in the hall, rushing away and calling for Miss Clementi. He hadn’t meant to scare her. Or maybe he had. The blasted woman ought to be more cautious.
He sat in his chair, thinking, pondering. Bryce and Chase needed to keep themselves busy, as well as earn some money so they could book passage to England. They had been sufficiently trained by Valois and would be the perfect choice to watch over the precious cargo of the Morovsky heirs.
Bryce in particular had become lethal and menacing, and with his father’s traits surging to the fore, the Princess would be plenty safe in his capable hands. Plus André was a Frenchman, a romantic at heart. He’d noted the passionate spark between the Princess and Bryce.
As a boy, Bryce had been robbed of his own heritage, so in that regard he and the Princess had much in common. Close proximity might be beneficial for both of them. At least the Princess would be protected by a man with aristocratic blood in his veins, and Bryce was very much like his father.
He was loyal, steady, and reliable, and the Princess would be lucky if he’d agree to take the job. She’d never have a better champion.
And as usual, André would have his own spies in the entourage so he would be fully apprised of the Princess’s location and conduct. Information in Cairo was like gold, and he could never guess when his knowledge of Princess Morovsky’s activities might be valuable.
She’d been stripped of title and rank and presumed she was a person of no consequence, but she was wrong about that. So long as Kristof was perched on her brother’s throne, she would never have any peace.
He went to the door and summoned the servant who was outside.
“Find Mr. Blair,” he said in French. “Ask him to attend me. I have a proposition that might interest him very much.”
* * * *
“Bring them back! Are you mad?”
King of Parthenia, Kristof Alexis Sebastiano Morovsky, threw his wine goblet against the fireplace, and it shattered quite effectively. He rounded on his chief advisor, Dmitri Romilard.
“There are rumors spreading,” Dmitri said. “We must nip them in the bud.”
“What rumors?” Kristof demanded.
“People are claiming Katarina, Nicholas, and Isabelle were murdered.”
“How ridiculous! They’re in Egypt with our spy, Pippa Clementi.”