Marrakech, Morocco, 1893
Organized chaos. Allegra could think of no other way to
describe the train station. The rhythmic sound of the
Berber dialect mixing with the French language created a
colorful cacophony of sound that engulfed her the moment
she stepped onto the crowded platform. A whoosh of steam
from the engine blasted its way out into the air, adding to
It wasn't any louder than London's Paddington Station, but
it was much more colorful and interesting. Spices and
exotic fruits scented the air in a tantalizing fashion,
while people pushed their way in and out of the one-story
station house. A man, dressed in the flowing white robes of
the Bedouins she'd read so much about, made his way along
the platform followed by a woman dressed in a bright blue
garment with a veil across her face. A porter dodged the
couple and headed straight for Allegra. The small, wiry man
came to a halt in front of her and bowed deeply.
"Mademoiselle Synnford, I am Ali. I come from Major
Hastings and his bien-aimĂ©."
"Wonderful," she said as she turned to see her maid
directing the removal of their luggage from the railroad
"Yes, Miss Allegra." The older woman turned her head toward
"This is Ali. He's here to take our luggage to the carriage
Isabelle's fiancĂ© arranged for us."
Millie nodded before she gestured for the porter to see to
one of the trunks sitting on the platform. Allegra bit back
a smile as her maid started to bark orders like a general
commanding a strategic assault.
Efficient and thorough, Millie managed everything in a way
that always ensured a positive outcome. Over the years,
numerous attempts had been made to lure Millie away from
her and into the employ of others. Her friend would have
none of it.
The shrill, high-pitched scream of a horse broke through
her thoughts and she turned toward the sound. Hooves
crashing against wood followed the animal's loud shrieks.
Over the past fifteen years, she'd learned a great deal
about horses. She'd even acquired a sizable stable of
thoroughbreds, which she ran at Newmarket in all the major
events. Since her first riding lesson at the age of
seventeen, she'd learned to recognize the difference
between animals in distress and those that were merely high-
This particular horse wasn't suffering, although it was
clearly agitated. Curiosity got the better of her and she
carefully made her way along the crowded platform toward
She'd passed almost five coaches when she saw a railcar
designed to transport cattle and other animals. A wide
plank ran from the straw-strewn floor of the car down to
the platform so animals could be led off the train. Another
shrill whinny erupted, followed by a violent thrashing of
hooves on the sides of the car. Excited shouts filled the
air, and in the next instant, a white Arabian stallion
bolted down the wooden ramp and onto the platform with a
young boy valiantly clinging to its halter rope. The
already crowded platform exploded with panicked shouts as
the horse released a shrill cry and reared up on its
haunches before falling back onto all four legs.
Despite the panic around her, Allegra could only stare at
the magnificent animal. It was the most beautiful horse
she'd ever seen. Not even her champion thoroughbred,
Seabreeze, could compare to this stallion. She was still
caught up in the beauty of the horse when someone charged
past her, knocking her off balance. Several more people
rushed by, bumping her aside as they raced toward safety.
Her balance precarious, she had almost righted herself when
a man shoved her out of his path—she staggered to one
side then tumbled to the ground.
Eyes rolling wildly in its head, the stallion reared up and
brought its front hooves crashing back down in a vicious
blow near where she lay. The boy still struggled with the
animal, but he was no match for the stallion's strength.
The realization sent fear streaking through her as a pair
of hooves again pounded the wood floor of the platform,
which reverberated beneath her with the force of the blow.
The horse seemed close to gaining its freedom, and she
froze as the animal reared up over her head.
In that breathless instant of terror, a dark shadow
abruptly blotted out the image of the uncontrollable horse.
The man took charge of the animal and brought it under
control. His voice low and hypnotic, he soothed the animal
in the language of the Bedouins. As the horse slowly grew
quiet, she pushed herself up into a sitting position.
Dazed, she pushed a loose strand of hair away from her face
with a trembling hand.
The strand of lace that had ripped away from the cuff of
her sleeve brushed across her cheek causing her to study it
ruefully. She was extremely fortunate it was the only
damage to her person. Gratitude swelled in her for the man
who'd come to her rescue.
She was just about to stand up when strong hands gripped
her waist and lifted her to her feet. The light scent of
bergamot tinged with an exotic spice teased her nose as she
stared up at the man towering over her. It was impossible
to stifle her gasp as the rest of her senses absorbed the
full impact of his close proximity.
When she'd arrived in Morocco yesterday, she'd seen men who
epitomized the romantic image her travel guide had painted
of a Bedouin sheikh. But this man defied all those
impressions. Dressed entirely in black, his kaffia was
draped across his face so all she could see were his dark
A rush of heat warmed her skin at the intensity of the look
in his hooded gaze. She was accustomed to being in the
presence of powerful men, but never one such as this. This
man possessed a raw, savage mystique about him that sent
her heart skidding along at breakneck speed.
He was at least six feet tall, with wide shoulders and
equally strong hands. Hands that only just now were
releasing her. Even with her limited knowledge of the
nomadic tribes of the Sahara and surrounding regions, she
knew his height was unusual for a Bedouin. Instinct told
her it was an advantage he used on a regular basis, just as
he was doing now.
Transfixed, she couldn't remember the last time a man had
intimidated her. But this one did. The invisible,
unrestrained aura of his maleness enveloped her. Here was a
man of power. A man who bowed to no one. A man who
conquered everything in his path.
A shiver raced down her spine as she took a quick step back
from him. His gaze narrowed and she realized her
trepidation showed. With one hand pressed to the base of
her throat, she swallowed hard.
"Thank you," she choked out from her suddenly dry mouth.
"You are unhurt then."
His voice was just like him, dark and mysterious. His
French was impeccable and mimicked that of the bluest of
aristocrats, yet she doubted there was a drop of Gallic
blood flowing through his veins. Still, it was easy to
understand why the horse had been so easily soothed. The
man had the seductive voice of a dark angel, the sound of
which could easily make the most pious of women consider
the possibility of sin. Realizing she'd not responded to
him, she brushed her hand across her temple in another
attempt to straighten her appearance.
"I'm a bit shaken, but none the worse for wear."
She dropped her gaze and swatted at the dirt still layering
her skirt. Those deep brown eyes of his made her feel as if
he could see straight through her. It was a disconcerting
sensation, and she didn't like it. It made her feel out of
control, something she never allowed herself when she was
with a man. Fire blazed through her as strong fingers
captured her lower jaw. He tilted her face to one side.
"You should ask the hotel manager to give you ice for that
cheek, ma belle."
It appalled her that she liked hearing him call her pretty.
She knew it was ludicrous to take pleasure in such a small
compliment. Even worse, her body was responding to him in a
way it had never done with any other man. The elemental
force of personality that flowed from him set off alarms in
her head. Swallowing hard, she put distance between them.
The moment she did, he arched an eyebrow at her and his
eyes became unreadable mahogany.
"Thank you for your concern, monsieur. I shall ask for your
suggested remedy when I arrive at my friend's home."
"Then we say, adieu, mademoiselle."
He gave her an abrupt nod then turned and moved back to the
stallion he'd saved her from. Flabbergasted by his sudden
departure, she felt her mouth fall open as he walked away
without another word. Unaccustomed to men simply walking
away from her as if she were of no consequence, she watched
in disbelief as he took the horse's halter rope from an
older Bedouin. It was an unpleasant experience to have a
man ignore her. Annoyed, she grimaced at her emotional
The older man said something to the dark stranger then
nodded in her direction. Horrified that her rescuer might
turn around to find her watching him, she spun around on
her heel and hurried back to where she'd left Millie. She
reached the train car and frowned when her maid and the
porter were nowhere in sight. She turned around to face the
direction she'd just come from and across the distance saw
her mysterious Bedouin watching her.
The unexpected frisson sliding over her skin appalled her.
This wasn't a man to be toyed with. That she found him
intriguing and mesmerizing made him even more dangerous. He
was the type of man who would demand total submission, and
not since that first night in Madame Eugenie's had she ever
allowed a man to control her. That night had taught her a
hard lesson and she'd turned it to her advantage. She knew
when to leave well enough alone, and this Bedouin sheikh
was a man to avoid at all costs.
She drew in a deep breath and directed a polite nod in his
direction before dragging her gaze away from him. Despite
her desire to run, she forced herself to walk at a sedate
pace until she reached the interior of the railway station.
The moment she escaped his watchful eyes, she hurried
through the building toward the doors leading out to the
The chaos from the railway platform had moved out into the
city street. A man with a monkey on his shoulder walked by
her, while a vendor across from the railroad station hawked
his wares at the people passing his small shop.
"Miss Allegra," Millie called out with a note of relief in
her voice. "Thank heavens. I thought we'd lost you."
With a smile, she turned to face her maid. "I'm sorry,
Millie. I was distracted by the most incredible horse I've
"Another horse." The older woman snorted with disgust as
she pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the side of
Allegra's skirt. "Look at your gown. Did you ride the beast
Although she'd been intrigued by far more than the horse,
Millie's question made her realize she'd missed the
opportunity to make an offer for the white stallion.
Irritated that she'd allowed the mysterious stranger to be
such a distraction, she pursed her mouth with rueful
frustration. If the man hadn't addled her brain so much she
might have been the new owner of that splendid animal.
Shaking her head, she touched her companion's shoulder.
"No, I didn't ride him, although I should have made an
offer. I'm certain he'd make a wonderful sire."
"I admit you have an eye for horses, Miss Allegra, but
bless me if I understand why you'd need another one."
"I suppose you're right, Millie." She smiled as she
followed the maid toward a waiting landau. "I don't really
need another horse, but he was magnificent."
Once they settled themselves inside, their coachman guided
the vehicle into the busy street and set off for
Isabelle's. Seated beside the driver, Ali occasionally
pointed out an item of interest to them. Well into the
middle of the day, the sun lashed its heat downward. The
parasol she carried deflected a large amount of sunlight,
but the temperature was still stifling. She would be
grateful to reach Isabelle's, where she could quench her
parched throat with a cool drink.
Seated across from her, Millie eyed the scenery warily. The
maid had never been comfortable journeying outside of
England, but Allegra had given up suggesting the woman
remain at home when she traveled. Her friend refused to be
left behind. She returned her attention to the exotic
setting they were driving through. It was beautiful and
mysterious with its Moorish arched windows, small
alleyways, and the minarets rising up toward the crisp blue
sky. The seductive sounds, the pungent scent of spices, and
the vivid colors created the impression of a rich opulence
that stirred an emotion deep inside her that she was unable
"It's beautiful isn't it?" Allegra didn't expect Millie to
actually answer her. The customary response was generally a
grunt, but the maid surprised her.
"A bit too heathenish to my liking, but it is interesting."
Laughing, Allegra shook her head. "I'll make a traveler of
you yet, Millie."
"I highly doubt that." The older woman sniffed her
dissension at the idea.
With a fleeting smile, Allegra turned her head to study the
lovely intricacies of the large building they were passing.
The architecture was beautiful and mysterious. Almost as
darkly inscrutable as her Bedouin sheikh. She released a
small sigh of disgust. What was it about the man that
intrigued her so much?
He'd been far too arrogant for her liking and dismissive as
well. Was that what bothered her? She had to admit that she
didn't like the fact she'd not made the slightest
impression on him. Even happily married men didn't walk
away from her like the stranger had. Perhaps her age was
beginning to show. She frowned. Ridiculous. She was barely
No, she was nettled because she'd been unable to capture
his attention completely. Her ego smarted from his blatant
dismissal of her. It had not happened before. That was the
only reason she couldn't forget him. She suppressed a sigh
at the thought. Was it? She wasn't so sure.
Not even the Prince of Wales had intrigued her quite this
much. But then Bertie had been a known quantity, just like
her other lovers. The dark-robed sheikh represented the
unknown to her. Many of her lovers had often been more like
spoilt schoolboys with power. Always amorous, yet prone to
the occasional tantrum.
She allowed herself a small smile as she recalled one of
the Prince of Wales's ill-tempered moments. It had been
easy to feel affection for him, just as it had been easy to
feel affection for all the other men she'd allowed into her
bed. Affection, but never love.
There were many men who'd thought themselves in love with
her, but she knew better. Although she was attractive
enough with her green eyes and dark red hair, it wasn't her
beauty that drew men to her. The image of her as a
courtesan unparalleled was what intoxicated them. It was
the illusion that had evolved out of Arthur's death that
drew men to her.
She understood how the persona had developed, but the
creation of it had been far from pleasant. The one positive
in the entire nightmare of Arthur's death had been her
ability to choose the men she welcomed into her bed. It had
cultivated an independence she would never have known at
Madame Eugenie's. It was a liberty she protected by
avoiding the emotional attachment of love. The emotion was
even more of an illusion than the misguided notion that she
was an incomparable lover.
Quite possibly Arthur might have protested her ideas about
love, but he wasn't here to chide her or challenge her on
the issue. All the same, she was certain he would be proud
of her. It would have pleased him to see her so self-
sufficient. Arthur's patronage and tutelage had brought her
a long way from that frightened girl he'd first met at
Madame Eugenie's. Even Millie had changed since her days
cooking in the brothel's kitchen. The woman was more than
her maid and occasional cook. Millie was a friend and
companion who watched over her.
Devoted and incredibly stubborn, Millie was one of the few
people she could count on to stand by her in even the worst
of circumstances. Her friend Isabelle was made of the same
cloth as her maid, but then the three of them had all
emerged from the bowels of the East End at almost the same
Her gloved fingers tightened on the wood handle of her
parasol as she banished the memory. This was a time of
celebration. Isabelle had found her heart's desire in the
form of Major Brant Hastings. The couple were to marry in
two days' time and she couldn't be happier for her friend.
She only wished she could be happy about the second
invitation she'd received just before leaving London.
With an adept move, she used her free hand to open the
drawstring reticule in her lap and retrieve Cordelia's
letter. The missive already showed distinct signs of wear,
evidence of the numerous times she'd read and reread her
niece's words. This time wasn't any different than the
hundreds of other instances she'd studied the letter. The
content was always the same. She heaved a sigh.
Her sweet, lovely Cordelia was to be a countess.
She'd always imagined that a country squire or perhaps a
wealthy merchant would steal her niece's heart. It had
never occurred to her that the girl might actually marry a
member of the Marlborough Set. But not even in her wildest
dreams would she have envisioned her niece becoming engaged
to the nephew of her first patron.
Arthur would have found the entire matter uproariously
funny. That his nephew, the current Earl of Bledsoe, was to
marry the niece of his onetime mistress would have appealed
to his sense of humor. But as much as it would have amused
her paramour, she was equally certain his wife, the Dowager
Countess of Bledsoe, would not find it humorous if she
discovered the truth.
The chill coursing its way down her back forced her to
adjust her parasol so the sun's heat could warm her
shoulders. If the dowager were to find out she and Cordelia
were related—no. She wouldn't let that happen. She
just wouldn't go to the wedding. She sighed. It wasn't
quite that simple, and she knew it.
The carriage turned off the street and rolled through the
black wrought iron gates outside a small mansion. As the
vehicle came to a halt, Allegra returned the letter to her
reticule and focused her attention on the government
residence. The Petit Palais was appropriately named.
Isabelle's new home was a beautiful little palace. Rounded
arched windows culminating in a sharp point were
complimented by sculptured stonework that gave the
impression of stiff lace across the faĂ§ade of the mansion.
The stone itself had a delicate pink tinge that only
enhanced the image of something magical and fragile.
Accepting the coachman's assistance, she stepped out of the
carriage as she continued to admire the Petit Palais.
Although elaborate in its Moorish design, there was a
welcoming quality to the house that made her suddenly
realize how fortunate her friend was. Isabelle hadn't just
found love, she'd found a home.
It was something she'd never had. There was her house in
London, of course, but it was simply a place to live. A
home was much more than a place to rest one's head. It
represented something more intangible. It was a symbol of
comfort, acceptance, and happiness. And it was that
intangible she was determined to give Cordelia, no matter
what the price.
"Allegra! Oh, how wonderful. You're here at last," Isabelle
Denten exclaimed as she hurried out of the enchanting house
with her arms outstretched. "I'm so happy to see you."
Her friend's excitement contagious, Allegra hastened
forward to embrace the dark-haired beauty. Stepping back to
look at her friend, Allegra smiled as she shook her head in
"Belle, you look positively radiant!"
"It's Brant's doing. I never thought it possible to be so
happy." Isabelle laughed as she turned toward Allegra's
maid. "Hello, Millie. Are you keeping my friend here in
"I do my best, Miss Isabelle. I do my best."
The woman's world-weary sigh pulled another laugh from
Isabelle as she issued a quick order to the butler who'd
joined them outside and stood discreetly a few feet
away. "Teabury, please have Ali see to the luggage and
ensure Millie is settled in the room adjoining Miss
Satisfied everything was running smoothly, Isabelle wrapped
her arm around Allegra's waist and drew her inside. "I
can't tell you how much it means to me that you've come to
be my witness at the wedding."
"How could I possibly refuse," Allegra said with a warm
smile. Arms entwined, they moved through a cool foyer into
a cheerful, brightly lit salon. "Although I confess I was
relieved to escape London."
"Escape? Whatever from?"
"Cordelia is engaged." Allegra sank down onto a green
"But that's wonderful."
"She's to marry the Earl of Bledsoe."
"Oh dear Lord." Isabelle, an expression of horror on her
face, collapsed onto the seat beside her.
"Quite." Allegra closed her eyes for a brief moment. "I
received her letter just before I left London. Apparently,
she met Arthur's nephew while on her holiday in Italy."
"My dear, Allegra, I am so sorry. What are you going to
do?" Isabelle reached over and squeezed her hand in a
gesture of comfort.
"I don't really know." She shook her head at her friend's
question. "I only know I cannot do anything that might
jeopardize Cordelia's happiness."
"What if you told her the truth?" Isabelle asked.
"The thought of doing so terrifies me."
"Cordelia loves you, Allegra. She'll understand."
Isabelle turned her head at the sound of china rattling. A
smile on her face, she instructed the maid to set the tray
on the coffee table in front of the couch. With a sense of
detachment, Allegra watched her friend pour a tall glass of
lemonade. Would Cordelia understand? She wasn't so sure.
It was true, her niece loved her, but she could easily lose
that love if she tried to explain the lies of the past
fifteen years. Falsehoods that had been difficult and
expensive to maintain. And all of it paid for by some of
the most prominent members of the Marlborough Set. Men
who'd showered her with money and jewels in exchange for
her company and the right to share her bed.
"I'm not convinced Cordelia will be as understanding as you
think." Allegra shook her head as she accepted the glass
Isabelle offered and took a sip of the cool drink. "She'll
be hurt and angry. And she'll feel betrayed. I understand
far too well what that means."
"Betrayed in what way, dearest? Do you really think not
telling her the truth is betrayal? You protected her."
Isabelle stared at her with an expression of fierce
affection and protectiveness. "Your mother betrayed you and
Elizabeth. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Cordelia is a
sensible girl. Her anger will be for what you and her
mother went through—not because you kept the truth
"That may be true, but it's too large a gamble for my peace
of mind. I have no desire to involve Cordelia in a scandal.
The last one was vile enough."
"Ah yes, Lady Bledsoe has a strong predilection for vicious
behavior, doesn't she," Isabelle said with a resigned
sigh. "But if young Lord Bledsoe is of Arthur's character
he'll stand by Cordelia regardless of what his aunt says."
"Perhaps." Allegra closed her eyes for a brief second. "It
would have been so much easier if Cordelia had fallen in
love with someone other than Lord Bledsoe."
Somehow, she'd convinced herself that Cordelia would never
need to know the truth. It had been a foolish assumption to
make on her part. She sighed. She couldn't help who she was
or where she'd come from, and her current lifestyle was
infinitely preferable to working in a brothel. It had also
given her niece the kind of life Allegra had never had.
Nor could she deny cherishing the independence she'd gained
due to the generosity of the rich and powerful men she'd
chosen as her lovers. And she had chosen them. Her
selective decisions as to whom she allowed into her
bedchamber had only enhanced her elusive image. It made men
all the more eager to seek her favors.
Cordelia had no knowledge of what her aunt did to ensure
that she received only the best money could buy. Nor did
she have any idea as to her less than illustrious
parentage. Telling the truth meant she might easily lose
Cordelia's love. But what other option did she have? The
moment someone discovered their relation, a scandal would
be inevitable. Of that, she had no doubt. Keeping the truth
from her niece would only make matters worse in the end.
She knew firsthand how devastating scandal was. Cordelia
was unprepared for the malicious gossip, the vicious
innuendos, and outright lies.
All of which would be exacerbated if Lady Bledsoe had any
say in the matter. The scandal would be far more savage and
poisonous than the last time. A shiver raced down her
spine. The storm she'd weathered at the time of Arthur's
death had been horrible, but she'd survived. This was a
different type of tempest altogether, but it would be no
less terrible, and quite likely worse.
Allegra took another swallow of her lemonade and met
Isabelle's sympathetic look with a sense of sardonic self-
pity. "I suppose I could disappear into the desert for
several months. Cordelia would have no choice but to marry
without me being present."
"What a splendid idea," Isabelle exclaimed with
sarcasm. "Simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away.
Look what happened the last time you refused to face
"I suppose you mean Charles."
"Precisely." Her friend sent her an abrupt nod of
Isabelle was right. She'd disregarded all the signs that
the Viscount Shaftsbury was becoming enamored with her. Her
hope had been that he was merely infatuated. She'd been
wrong. It had taken his offer of marriage to open her eyes.
He was the first man who'd ever made her such a proposal,
and for the briefest of moments, she'd actually considered
accepting. The fleeting thought had been discarded at
almost the same moment it occurred to her.
Still, rejecting him had not been an easy thing to do.
There had been a part of her that liked the stability and
companionship a marriage to Charles might bring her. But
she didn't love him, and even if she had, her independence
would have been too high a price to pay for such a
permanent arrangement. Up until Charles, she and her lovers
had always parted on good terms. Many of them were still
close friends. But ending her affair with Charles had been
a disaster. The gossip had been particularly vicious, and
even on occasion the public, and especially cruel
denouncements, from Charles had cut deep. Even more painful
had been the destruction of a friendship she'd valued
dearly. She met her friend's censorious gaze and sighed.
"You're right. I have no other option except to tell her
the truth. Although how I'll do that, I've no idea."
"Between us, we'll develop a plan of action." Isabelle
patted her arm. "For the moment, I think you need some
rest. You look fatigued, and your journey here would have
been difficult enough without this matter about Cordelia
weighing on you."
"Surely I don't look that exhausted." She sent her friend
an amused look.
"Of course not, but tonight we dine at the Sultan's palace.
Mulay Hassan is hosting a celebratory reception for Brant
and me. It's a tremendous honor."
"Oh, Belle, I don't know if I'm up to a lavish affair."
"But you must come. The only women attending are wives of
officers and attaches. They're most likely to ignore me
unless forced to acknowledge me. I'm afraid Brant has
rather scandalized the Imperialists by marrying me."
Isabelle sniffed her disdain delicately. "I'll be bored to
distraction unless you're there."
Unable to help herself, Allegra laughed at her friend's
determined expression. Belle had always been adept at
persuading people to do as she wanted, but there was a hint
of loneliness in her plea. It reminded Allegra that her
friend's social circle was most likely limited given her
social position. Even once she was married, Belle would
have a difficult time being accepted into many circles.
"Very well, since it means that much to you, I'll go."
"Wonderful," Belle exclaimed as she impulsively leaned
forward to hug Allegra. "Who knows, perhaps you'll meet a
handsome sheikh tonight who'll fall madly in love with you
and whisk you off to his desert tent."
"Good heavens, perish the thought." Allegra shook her head
sharply as her heart skipped a beat at the memory of a
darkly robed Bedouin. "You know I'm far too strong-willed
to submit to the edicts of a demanding sheikh."
"Perhaps, but even you might find such a man exciting."
Springing to her feet, Belle gestured for Allegra to follow
her. "Come, let me show you to your room."
As she trailed after her friend, Allegra recalled the
Bedouin she'd met earlier. He represented a danger she knew
better than to long for, but there had been something about
the man that tugged her thoughts to him. Would he be at the
Sultan's palace tonight?
Dismayed by the thought she frowned. What on earth would
possess her to consider such a notion? She had no desire to
be conquered, and the man would do precisely that. He would
take what he wanted, and in the end he'd bend her to his
The prospect appalled and excited her in the same breath.
Swallowing her fear, she fervently offered up a plea that
she wouldn't see her dark sheikh tonight or any other
night. But even as she climbed the steps with Isabelle, a
small voice in the back of her head begged for just the
Read additional chapters at Monica Burns Website.