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By Nan Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Nan Ryan
All rights reserved.
A London Cabaret
A Balmy Spring Night in 1898
A ruby was caught in the cabaret's muted light.
Tiny spangles inside the red stone reflected the six-rayed glow that gave the gem its name.
This Starfire had come from the fabled mines of Mogok, Burma, home of the world's finest rubies. The ruby was one of those prized gemstones so intensely red in color, it merited the descriptive term "pigeon blood."
The ancient Greeks had described such a ruby's rare color as "anthracite." A deep flaming red, like burning coal. In the Hindu religion the ruby was ranked above all other precious stones. Magical properties were attributed to the ruby, a coveted gemstone believed to bring peace and well-being to its owner.
It was said that the ruby held magical and talismanic significance to its wearer. And legend had it that the rare pigeon blood ruby could warn its owner of imminent peril by turning dark or black ... and not returning to its normal color until the danger had passed.
All rubies were valuable. But rubies of the dark pigeon blood hue were among the rarest of all the world's finest gemstones. Especially those in excess of three carats. This Starfire ruby now captured in the London cabaret's mellow light was in excess of six carats.
The enormous ruby had once adorned a Burmese Buddha seated high on a Mogok hilltop overlooking the valley from which the stone came. It was now the solitary gem set intact in a simple wide gold ring. The ring encircled the long tapered third finger of a lean, masculine hand. A large, well-tended hand with short, clean, neatly clipped nails. A hand that was strikingly dark against the stark whiteness of the cloth upon which it rested. A hand that lay unmoving on a table.
The wearer of the magnificent six-carat ruby ring was as still as his hand. Seated alone at a tiny table for one set apart on the cabaret's open-balconied mezzanine, he didn't shift or fidget or twist about on his chair. He didn't wave to patrons or call out to acquaintances or signal for a waiter. He didn't so much as turn his head to the left or the right. He sat entirely motionless on his chair yet miraculously managed to look completely comfortable and relaxed.
A man of staggeringly handsome dark good looks, he was graceful, sophisticated, and totally sure of himself. Possessed of a body that was as splendid as his face, the tall, broad-shouldered man had smooth, deeply tanned skin and thick lustrous hair that was so raven black it produced dancing blue highlights.
His attire was impeccable. He wore a smartly tailored suit of crisp white linen, the well-cut jacket now open casually and pushed back. A custom-made powder blue shirt of fine Egyptian cotton lay softly against the hard flat muscles of his chest, the shirt's stiffly starched collar snug around his smooth dark throat. His perfectly knotted cravat was of shimmering maroon silk, and a matching silk handkerchief was tucked into his suit jacket's right breast pocket.
Unaware and uncaring of the covetous female glances boldly cast his way, the handsome, immaculately groomed man continued to sit alone at his table. The small, white-draped table was situated directly beside the wrought-iron railing encircling the mezzanine, overlooking the main floor of the smoky, noisy, dimly lit cabaret.
His dark, half-hooded eyes were focused on the dance floor directly below. The floor was crowded with dancers. Couples swayed and spun about in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color made up of bright summer ball gowns and gleaming, carefully coiffured tresses and flashing jewels. Skirts of vivid hues flared and swirled as smiling gentlemen turned their radiant partners about.
But the man on the mezzanine saw only one color.
Only one dancer.
Dressed all in red, a young, slender woman was the object of his undivided attention. He watched her unblinkingly, his penetrating dark eyes riveted to her. Had been watching her from the moment she'd arrived with a group of laughing, well-dressed revelers. Now she turned about in the arms of a tall, prosperous-looking partner who was quite clearly captivated by her charms.
Although not dazzled like her enchanted escort, the dark man had quickly determined from his vantage point above that the woman in red was a natural beauty. Silky blond hair spilled around pale bare shoulders and framed a flawless face of classic delicate features. He couldn't ascertain the exact color of her eyes, but he could see that they were large and flashing and ringed with long, dark lashes. Her nose was small and slightly tilted at the tip, and her soft mouth—which never seemed to be closed—was full lipped, perfectly shaped, and as blood red as the ruby adorning his finger.
She was, he discerned, tall, willowy, and attractively long waisted, with the soft, supple curves of a nubile young girl. Hers was a regal, lithe, long-limbed body, the kind of perfect symmetrical frame on which expensive, beautiful clothes were worn so well. And, he surmised calmly, the kind of exquisite female form on which nothing at all was worn even better.
The young woman was stunning in her red chiffon dress, the bodice cut so low that it exposed the creamy white tops of her high, full breasts. Appealingly tight around her trim midriff and narrow waist, the gauzy crimson fabric flared out over the sculpted arch of her hips and fell in graceful swaying folds to the floor.
She was beautiful. And she was vivacious. Too vivacious. She was constantly laughing and talking and louder than the women to whom he was accustomed.
A tiny white scar at the left side of his full lips twitched spasmodically as the dark, somber man in the white linen suit watched the woman in red. His handsome face hardened minutely. His night black eyes narrowed ever so slightly. The smooth flesh of his firm jaw ridged as he involuntarily clamped his teeth too tightly together. And continued to stare unblinkingly at the woman in red.
"My dear, I do so wish you would reconsider," said Sir William Perry as he turned his beautiful blond companion about the dance floor. "Such a journey is not only totally unnecessary, it's foolhardy and most dangerous." His handsome, pale patrician face wore a frown of disapproval and worry.
"Ah, Bill, don't. Let's please not speak of it again." Temple Longworth laughed away his concern. "I shall be perfectly safe, I assure you. Why, men travel into the deserts all the time and no one thinks a thing about it."
"Men, Temple, yes," said Sir William. "Not ladies. Especially not beautiful blond young ladies who—"
"I'm going and that's final," she said, cutting him off. "I've been planning this journey for months, and nothing can stop me."
Sir William sighed with exasperation but said no more, knowing that once the strong-willed Temple Longworth had made up her mind, no one could change it. Certainly not him. Desperate to keep her safe and yearning to have her for his own, he drew her closer into his embrace. He pressed his cheek to hers and closed his eyes, wishing he could persuade her to marry him at once and give up her foolish notions of dangerous journeys to foreign, uncivilized lands.
Temple Longworth allowed Sir William Perry to hold her close for only a few seconds. She sensed what was going through his mind and had no intention of encouraging him. She certainly had no intention of marrying him.
And she had no intention of allowing Sir William or anyone else to put a damper on her high spirits. She wanted to continue to dance and laugh and have a merry time on this, her last night in London.
It was, after all, a celebration.
The twenty-five-year-old American heiress was out for the evening with a lively group of her favorite European friends to celebrate her much anticipated, long-planned trip into the vast Arabian deserts. Couples both young and old had accompanied Temple out for a final gala evening of fun and merrymaking, although many felt as apprehensive as Sir William about her proposed adventure.
It was, they felt certain, more than a little dangerous for a beautiful young woman to go into the vast Arabian deserts with only her middle-aged, dutiful distant cousin, the widowed Rupert Longworth, for protection.
"Cousin Rupert won't be my only escort," Temple argued. "I've engaged a number of dependable Arab scouts to guide us on the entire journey. So you see, there's absolutely nothing to worry about."
And since they were of the privileged elite, unused to worrying a great deal about anything, the revelers in Temple's party put aside their doubts and enjoyed themselves.
No one more so than the bold, thrill-seeking American socialite Temple Longworth, who would leave London at dawn to begin her long journey.
Tonight the mood was gay. The dancing was spirited. And Temple, breathtakingly gorgeous in her elegant long gown of scarlet chiffon, was the center of attention.
Blithely ignoring the warnings of her handsome escort, Sir William Perry, as well as the others in her party, the free-spirited Temple was enjoying herself. Excited about her imminent adventure, the slightly tipsy Temple whirled about on the dance floor, a dazzling smile on her flushed face, her slender arms raised above her head, the swaying skirts of her scarlet evening gown lifting to reveal fleeting glimpses of slim ankles and well-shaped legs.
On the landing above, the unsmiling gentleman withdrew a slim gold case from inside his white linen suit jacket. Dark, intense eyes never leaving the woman whirling giddily about below, he lighted one of his favored French Cartier cigarettes. After drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, he took the cigarette from his lips and exhaled slowly, releasing the smoke to spiral upward. He lowered his hand to the table and glanced at the ruby.
His dark eyes widened slightly.
The ruby's blood red color had darkened to near black. But he was not a superstitious man. His full lips stretched into a cynical half smile, and he dismissed the ruby's dramatic change of color as an aberration caused by the cabaret's transforming light.
Languidly he smoked his French cigarette and continued to observe the movements of the beautiful blond American.
All at once Temple felt a hint of a chill skip up her spine. Quite suddenly she was aware of an unsettling presence, felt the disturbing pressure of probing eyes upon her.
Regarding her. Examining her. Touching her.
Temple lifted her head from Sir William's shoulder and looked about. She saw no one but her circle of friends. The lower floor of the opulent club was nearly deserted, as the hour had grown late and the regulars had departed.
She glanced up at the mezzanine and immediately spotted a dark man in a white suit seated alone and apart at a tiny table beside the wrought-iron railing.
She caught only a fleeting glimpse of a dark head before he leaned back into the deep shadow and his face was completely hidden from her view. Curious, half intrigued, Temple was acutely aware that the mysterious man was watching her.
And only her.
Unconsciously she played to him. She caught herself laughing a bit too loudly and dancing a bit too wildly. And pretending to have even more fun than she was actually having. All for his benefit.
Inexplicably, she was bent on holding the dark stranger's attention. She was showing off and couldn't stop herself. She wanted him to continue staring at her. Was determined to hold his interest. She felt strangely hot and cold at the same time, experiencing a definite thrill from feeling the enigmatic stranger's eyes scrutinizing her.
She spun about dizzily, keenly aware that her shiny blond hair was dancing around her bare shoulders and that her scarlet skirts were rising higher and higher above her stockinged ankles.
Temple abruptly threw back her head and looked up challengingly.
And was mildly disappointed to see only an empty table.
The dark stranger was gone.
Temple DuPlessis Longworth felt oddly let down.CHAPTER 2
Midnight had come and gone when the gleaming black coach bearing the Perry heraldic crest neared London's Savoy Hotel. Sir William and Temple were alone in the coach's roomy interior. Temple's indulgent cousin, Rupert Longworth, had joined in the evening's festivities but had tired early. He had made his apologies and returned to the hotel shortly after ten o'clock.
A creature of habit, Rupert Longworth, the fifty-eight-year-old widower and one of Temple's most favorite relatives, never stayed up past eleven, no matter where he was or with whom. Rupert Longworth would gladly tell anyone who would listen that he insisted on being undressed and in his monogrammed silk pajamas each night at precisely ten-thirty, at which time he enjoyed, without fail, exactly two snifters of cognac and at least one chapter of a good book before falling asleep.
As the black brougham rolled to a stop before the Savoy's canopied main entrance, Temple Longworth turned to Sir William and offered her cheek for his good-night kiss, saying, "It's very late, Bill. Let's say good night here."
"Certainly not." Sir William Perry shook his head vigorously. "My dear, do you really suppose I'd allow you to roam the hotel corridors alone at this hour?"
Before Temple could reply, Sir William had stepped across her and was out of the carriage. He turned to offer her his hand. Temple sighed inwardly but placed her slender fingers atop his gloved palm and allowed him to help her down to the curb.
Inside the spacious hotel lobby Temple paused beneath a huge chandelier and tried once more. "It was a lovely evening, Bill, truly lovely. I can't thank you enough."
"The pleasure was all mine," said he, as he took her upper arm and ushered her toward the lift.
"You needn't come up," she said gently. "I'm entirely safe now, and—"
"I shall see you directly to your door," Sir William insisted. "No gentleman would do less." And he handed her inside the lift's barred cage.
The lift began its rise the moment they were inside, and Sir William Perry, turning his back on the uniformed operator, drew Temple close and said in a low voice, "You are beautiful. So incredibly beautiful. All evening I've been wanting—"
"Bill, please, not here...." Temple pulled away and made a face. Her green eyes snapping with annoyance, she inclined her head toward the little uniformed man operating the lift.
"You're right, of course," said Sir William, and gave her a knowing smile that made Temple cringe inwardly.
Her eager escort was undoubtedly counting on being invited in for a nightcap. Well, that wasn't going to happen. She was exhausted from the long evening, and she had a slight headache from the champagne. And she'd had quite enough of him and his company. She hoped he wouldn't make a scene.
The elevator came to a jolting stop. Temple and Sir William stepped out into the silent corridor. Temple began making excuses before they reached the door of her sixth-floor suite.
"I'll have to be extra quiet," she whispered, giving Sir William a small smile. "I wouldn't want to wake Cousin Rupert."
"No, we wouldn't," William replied, smiling back at her.
At the door, Temple withdrew a key from her small evening bag. Key in hand, she turned to face Sir William. Swiftly he reached for the key, saying, "Invite me in for a nightcap?"
"I wish I could, Bill, but as I mentioned, Cousin Rupert is—"
"Sound asleep and not likely to wake up anytime soon," he finished for her. His smile and tone mildly accusing, he added, "You've forgotten, Temple. I played cards with your cousin on Tuesday afternoon. I distinctly recall his having his own suite across the corridor."
Caught, Temple smiled and said, "You have me, Bill."
"No. No, I haven't," he said, "But I want you, and—"
"Don't. Don't do this."
"I must. Allow me to come inside, dearest. Just for a moment. Let me say all the things I've been wanting to say since we first—"
"Bill, we've been over this before," Temple cut in anxiously. "I'm sorry if you—"
Excerpted from Burning Love by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1996 Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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