Kismet – Monica Burns

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 the din. It wasn’t any louder than London’s Paddington Station was, 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-aimé.” “Wonderful,” she said as she turned to see her maid directing the removal of their luggage from the railroad car. “Millie?” “Yes, Miss Allegra.” The older woman turned her head toward her. “This is Ali.

He’s here to take our luggage to the carriage Isabelle’s fiancé 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, Allegra had 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-strung. 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 the disruption. 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 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. Allegra 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, Allegra had 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 kaf ia was draped across his face so all she could see were his dark brown eyes. 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. Including her. A shiver raced down Allegra’s 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. Allegra 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. Una2ccustomed 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 reaction. 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 Allegra 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 street. 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 ever seen.” “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 as well?” 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 to define. “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 past thirty. No, she was nettled because she’d been unable to capture his attention completely. Her pride 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 time. 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 was to marry in two days’ time and Allegra 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. Married. Her sweet, lovely Cordelia was to be a countess.

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