In this scene, our intrepid heroine Clarinda Cardew comes face to face with her first love Ashton Burke for the first time since he left her nine years ago after he comes to rescue her from a harem...
He had come for her, Clarinda thought, her treacherous heart leaping with hope as she met Ashton Burke's gaze for the first time in nearly ten years.
In those dark hours after he had first left her behind while he went off to chase his dreams, her spiteful imagination had supplied her with hours of entertainment by conjuring up countless scenarios during which they might once again come face to face.
There was the one where she alighted from a gilded carriage drawn by six snowy white horses only to find his wasted figure huddled in the gutter outside her father's Mayfair town house. Favoring him with a pitying smile, she would pluck a farthing from her purse and toss it to him before blithely stepping over his rag-wrapped form and proceeding into the house. (If she were in a particularly mean-spirited mood, it would be snowing outside and she would accidentally stomp on his fingers as she swept past him.)
There was also the one where she turned in the dance only to come face to face with him in some glittering London ballroom. While he gazed longingly down at her, she would squint up at him as if trying to place his face. "Oh, yes! I do remember you," she would finally say, tapping his arm playfully with her fan. "Weren't you that horrid lad who used to dog my every step when I was a girl?" Then she would turn away to offer her arm to her next partner while he gazed helplessly after her, his heart tumbling from his chest to shatter into broken shards on the floor around his feet.
But her most cherished scenario was the one where she was summoned to the hospital to honor his request to see her face one last time before he succumbed to the dreaded ravages of the French pox. She would appear at his bedside garbed all in white, the lamplight haloing her face and hair. She would gently hold his hand—keeping her gloves on all the while, of course—while he poured out his regrets and begged for her forgiveness. At the precise moment he was rasping out his final breath, she would lean over and whisper tenderly in his ear, "Give the devil my regards, Captain Burke."
Those vengeful fantasies had been the product of a young girl's bruised heart, hardly befitting the mature woman Clarinda had become. A woman who had spent years mastering her more petty emotions.
Which didn't explain the malicious twinge of satisfaction she felt as she came face to face with Ashton Burke while she was cradled in the muscular arms of a devastatingly handsome Moroccan sultan and wearing little more than an enticing collection of veils. Even her bountiful imagination hadn't been able to whip up such an unlikely—or delicious—scenario.
As their gazes locked in the shadows beneath the brim of his hat, Ash's familiar gold-flecked eyes narrowed without betraying so much as a trace of regret or yearning. On the contrary, he looked more inclined to step over her body as she lay gasping her last in some filthy gutter. Or to give her the cut direct in a crowded ballroom before a throng of gawking onlookers.
She had to blink more than once to dispel the image of the beautiful boy she remembered from her youth. The jaded stranger who stood before her now was every inch a man. A man who looked as if he'd be more at home in a seedy saloon than an elegant salon. Wind, sand, and time had polished away all traces of youth and vulnerability, leaving him lean and hard and infinitely more dangerous than the boy who had walked out of her life all those years ago. Flecks of sand clung to his sun-baked skin, catching like powdered gold dust in the rakish hint of beard stubble shadowing his jaw and upper lip.
Clarinda had tried to convince Poppy the scandal sheet artist must have flattered him, but just as she had secretly feared, the artist had failed to do him justice. A thin, diagonal scar that was new to her, yet plainly old to him, marred the perfection of a strong chin that was neither too pointed nor too squared. The bridge of his nose was no longer flawlessly aligned but canted to the right by a degree that would only be noticed by someone who had spent hours lovingly tracing every inch of his features, both with their fingertips and in their memory. The grooves bracketing his mouth had deepened, making her wonder if his devil-may-care dimple had vanished forever, left on some battlefield somewhere between England and Morocco.
Oddly enough, those fresh flaws only added to his rugged appeal. His was the face of a man who had lived hard and fought harder. That, more than anything, was what made her long to tenderly press her mouth to the scar beneath his chin so her lips might memorize it as well.
She drew in a deep breath, hoping it would calm the rushing in her ears, the mad flutter of the pulse in her throat. She had no business entertaining such scandalous thoughts when she was promised to another man. Especially when that man just happened to be his brother.
It was nearly impossible to inject the perfect note of disdain into her voice when she was fighting so hard to keep it from trembling. "Speaking of villains, Your Majesty," she inquired of Farouk, "what on earth is he doing here?"
"You know this man?"
Clarinda didn't dare tip back her head to steal a peek at Farouk's face in that moment but she could hear the jealous scowl in his voice. "I know of him. As does every woman in England with more than a passing acquaintance with the more torrid scandal sheets."
Farouk's granite-hard muscles relaxed beneath her hand as a chuckle rumbled up from deep in his chest. "Ah, Burke the Younger, it seems your reputation precedes you!"
"So they tell me," Ash said smoothly. "Although I can assure you my exploits have been much exaggerated by men with too little adventure in their own lives and too much time—and ink—on their hands. Only the most vapid and empty-headed of creatures would give credence to what they write."
Although his tone was deliberately pleasant, Clarinda felt her own eyes narrow.
Before she could form a retort, Farouk came to her defense, his voice still ripe with amusement. "I can assure you this creature's lovely head is full of clever thoughts. Much to my own detriment and the detriment of any man who would seek to match wits with her, I fear." He tugged her around to face him, giving her a scowl that would have made most men tremble in their boots. "If not, she would be safely tucked away in my harem right now instead of flitting about the palace like a naughty little butterfly."
"When the women started whispering about what had happened, I just had to make sure you were all right so I coaxed Solomon into letting me out for a bit." Keenly aware of Ash's heavy-lidded gaze upon her, Clarinda gave Farouk a distressed look from beneath the silky length of her lashes. "You're not angry with me, are you? I couldn't bear it if I made you cross."
Farouk's scowl melted into an adoring grin. "See what I mean?" he asked Ash over her head. "This one can charm even a eunuch into doing her bidding. How could any red-blooded man hope to resist her?"
"I'm sure it would be a challenge," Ash murmured, although from his skeptical expression one might deduce he would have little difficulty doing so.
Farouk splayed his big, warm hand against Clarinda's back, urging her closer to Ash against her will. "It is my great honor to present to you Clarinda Cardew. She is my…" He trailed off awkwardly, as if his impeccable command of the English language had suddenly deserted him.
Was it Clarinda's imagination or was Ash holding his breath?
"…guest," Farouk finally finished with more than a trace of regret.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Cardew," Ash replied, dragging off the battered wide-brimmed hat that would have made a less imposing man look like a common ditch digger. The same sun that had toasted every inch of his exposed skin to a warm honeyed hue had also woven errant strands of gold through the caramel brown of his hair.
Clarinda had hoped for nothing more unsettling from him than a polite bow, but as Ash bowed, he captured her hand and brought the back of it to his mouth. The moist heat of his parted lips against her skin dredged up a host of memories. Most of which were best left buried.
An all-too-familiar devilment sparked in his deep-set amber eyes as his gaze met hers over their joined hands. "Or would you prefer I address you as 'Little English Buttercup'?"
Clarinda tried to wiggle her hand free from his grip but he held fast, refusing to relinquish it. "'Miss Cardew' will suffice, sir. And I can assure you the pleasure is all mine."
"That's not how I remember it," Ash murmured beneath his breath, the timbre of his voice so deep it was audible only to her ears.
This time he did not protest when she snatched her hand from his and retreated to Farouk's side. "Since your head is still firmly attached to your neck, I'm assuming you weren't among the band of cutthroats who tried to waylay the sultan, Mr….Burke the Lesser, was it?"
The mocking glint in Ash's eyes hardened to something more dangerous. She blinked innocently at him.
"I owe this man my life," Farouk proclaimed in his booming baritone. "If Burke here didn't have the bold heart of a tiger, it would be my head rotting in the desert heat right now."
Someone cleared their throat pointedly. Clarinda realized for the first time that Ash hadn't come alone. She had been so stunned by his miraculous appearance she had mistaken the man at his elbow in the flowing white robes and traditional keffiyeh for one of Farouk's servants. The stranger's dark, liquid eyes had been following every nuance of their exchange with undisguised fascination.
"I would be remiss not to give equal credit to Burke's man here," Farouk amended, earning a smug smirk from Ash's companion. "He was clever enough to offer his throat to one of the villains as a distraction while his master dispatched the rest of them."
The man's smirk vanished, only to reappear on Ash's lips. "Allow me to introduce Mr. Luca D'Arcangelo," Ash interjected smoothly. "My friend and comrade-in-arms in more battles than I care to remember."
Luca had the full, sensual lips and drowsy eyes of a born lover. "Delighted to make your acquaintance, cara mia," he said to Clarinda. "Surely the humble buttercup does not do your beauty justice. I would be more inclined to compare your charms to those of a more rare and exotic flower, a night-blooming lily perhaps, whose scent has been known to drive even the most iron-willed of men to abandon all reason and embrace the madness of unbridled desire."
As Luca sauntered forward as if he had ever intention of kissing Clarinda's hand, or perhaps even her lips, Ash caught the back of his robes and yanked him back. It was just as well because something that sounded suspiciously like a growl had begun to emanate from deep in Farouk's chest.
"You'll have to forgive my friend," Ash said, his teeth clenched in a conciliatory smile as his companion shot him a sulky look. "He learned most of his English by repeated re-readings of The Bawdy Adventures of Buxom Bess."
"How very generous of you to loan him your copy!" Clarinda said sweetly.
Farouk's growl subsided. "Although I can never hope to repay the debt I owe them, Burke the Younger and Mr. D'Arcangelo will be enjoying my hospitality for as long as they desire. I've already promised to tempt them with every manner of delicacy at my disposal tonight as we sup together."
This time there was no imagining the gaze Ash flicked her way. It danced over Clarinda's skin like living flame.
"You're very fortunate the captain is willing to settle for your hospitality as reward for his noble deeds," she said to hide the effect that look had on her. "I've heard he prefers to be paid in kisses."
"At the moment I'd settle for a hot bath to wash away the desert grit," Ash said.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Clarinda said, then wished she hadn't as an image of Ash sinking into a steaming tub while surrounded by a bevy of giggling slave girls popped into her head.
"Followed by a long afternoon nap before supper?" Luca suggested hopefully, his leer replaced by a yawn.
Clarinda was beginning to believe disaster just might be averted—or at least delayed—when Poppy came rushing into the courtyard, a colorful swirl of veils billowing behind her. Having never quite mastered the voluminous garments, she always had the air of someone caught in a sudden windstorm.
She was so intent on not tripping over her skirts that she was paying no mind whatsoever to what was directly in front of her. "Oh, Clarinda, one of the women just told me some dastardly villains had attacked the sultan! Who would dare to do such a thing? Don't they know that he's the strongest, the most powerful, the most noble, the most courageous—"
Her breathless recitation of the sultan's apparently endless list of glowing attributes came to an abrupt end when she ran full tilt into the man. Farouk steadied her with one arm, then gave her a gentle push, placing a safe distance between them.
"Oh, there you are!" she exclaimed, blinking up at him. Her exotic dress was at direct odds with the wire-rimmed spectacles perched on the tip of her nose and the rosy blush tinting the ripe apples of her cheeks. "I'm so very happy to see you! I mean…I'm so very happy to see that you're unharmed," she amended, her blush deepening as she spread her skirts and bobbed him an awkward curtsy. "When I overheard two of the eunuchs discussing the attack, I feared the worst, m-m-my lord…and master," she added hopefully, batting her eyelashes at him.
Clarinda winced. If Poppy was hoping to hide her infatuation with the handsome sultan, she was doing a miserable job of it.
Farouk rolled his eyes, making no attempt to disguise his longsuffering sigh. His effortless charm always seemed to desert him whenever Poppy was near. "As I have told you many times before, Miss Montmorency, I am Your Majesty, not your master. It seems we have another escapee from my harem, gentlemen," he informed Ash and Luca. "Please allow me to introduce Miss Montmorency. She is Miss Cardew's…companion."
"And my dearest friend," Clarinda added loyally as Poppy bobbed another curtsy, this time in the direction of the new arrivals.
Poppy froze in mid-bob as she spotted Ash, her eyes growing even more enormous behind the thick lenses of her spectacles. "Oh! Oh my! I know who you are! You're Ashton Burke, the legendary adventurer! Why, you look exactly like the sketch that was in the Snitch a few months ago!" She shot Clarinda a confused glance. "I thought you said he had a long, hooked nose, a pair of spindly bowlegs and teeth like a beaver's?"
Clarinda stiffened as Ash arched a bemused eyebrow in her direction. "You must have misheard me, dear," she said. "Or perhaps I mistook him for someone else of my acquaintance."
"Oh no, I'm absolutely positive I heard you correctly," Poppy insisted earnestly. "I have a terrible head for sums but a frightfully good memory for conversation. I distinctly remember our exchange because it came just minutes before those nasty pirates attacked our ship. You also said men like Captain Burke cloak themselves in rumor and innuendo because there is nothing of real substance to hide. That they spread tall tales themselves simply to compensate for their own short—"
Clarinda clapped a hand over Poppy's mouth, wishing she had done so the moment Poppy came barreling into the courtyard. Luca snorted and Farouk's dark eyes sparkled with poorly concealed amusement.
Afraid to look at Ash, Clarinda gingerly removed her hand from Poppy's mouth. "I don't recall any such conversation. Perhaps your memory was simply addled by the distress of the attack."
Poppy gave Clarinda good reason to regret removing her hand when she blurted out, "Why are you here, Captain Burke? Have you come to rescue us just as you rescued that beautiful Hindustani princess?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Poppy." Clarinda laughed to hide her swelling alarm. "Rescue us from what? The lap of luxury? Being pampered like a pair of Princess Adelaide's cherished lapdogs? You know as well as I do that it was the sultan who rescued us from the horrors of the slave market. We owe him our gratitude and our loyalty…as well as our lives." She punctuated that declaration by returning to the protective circle of Farouk's arms and giving his chest a fond pat.
He slipped an arm around her waist and smiled down at her, his white teeth gleaming against his swarthy skin. "My little English buttercup chooses her words wisely." Although his smile lost none of its radiance, his eyes narrowed as he shifted his gaze to Ash's face. "I doubt a man of Captain Burke's reputation has survived this long by seeking to steal a woman who belongs to another man."
Even if she had first belonged to him.
The thought dawned in Clarinda's heart with shuddering clarity. For a timeless moment she was back in that misty meadow, wrapped once more in the irresistible heat of Ash's arms as they sank into the folds of her cloak.
Almost as if he could divine her wayward thoughts, Farouk tightened his possessive grip on her. "Seeking to steal a woman under such circumstances might very well cost a man not only his heart but his head." Despite his jovial tone, there was no mistaking the sharp edge of warning in his words.
Just as there was no mistaking the mocking grace in Ash's answering bow. "Then it is fortunate for the both of us that I have yet to lay eyes on the woman for whom I would be willing to sacrifice my heart—or my head."