William growled in frustration. "Karina, you must grow up and face your responsibilities! You can't simply fantasize about a perfect husband, while you turn down all the eligible men who approach you. I don't wish to force you into a marriage against your will, but I am quickly running out of patience. If you can't make up your mind, I will choose a husband for you. As a matter of fact, I already have someone in mind."
Karina's jaw dropped open in horror. She knew he was referring to Lord Rawlins, her least favorite among her suitors. "Papa, you can't be serious!"
"I am very serious, daughter. The Viceroy's ball is next week, and I give you until then to find a suitable husband. If you can't do so, I will choose someone for you!" William had stood firm even when Karina had whirled and ran from the room crying. Let her pitch her fit, he had thought to himself. He was doing what was best for her, and he wouldn't give in this time!
A rustle of silk caught William's attention bringing him back to the present, and he looked up to see his daughter standing poised at the top of the stairs. His expression of annoyance faded as he watched Karina gracefully descend the stairs.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting Papa," she murmured as she glided to his side and placed a kiss upon his cheek.
William held her at arm's length and gave a nod of approval. "Well, I suppose it was worth the wait, when you look this beautiful. You look more like your mother every day." He took her arm and gave it an affectionate pat.
Karina bit her lip. Perhaps he was in a good mood, and she could soften his resolve on the matter of the ultimatum he had issued. "Papa, please don't rush me. I promise that I will choose a husband soon, though it may not be tonight."
William frowned. "Karina, my mind is made up. I am looking out for your best interest, and I won't be swayed from that purpose."
"But Papa . . ."
William cut off her protest with a firm shake of his head. "No, Karina. I won't listen to any more protests. You will certainly have your pick of men tonight, my dear. One of them will be your future husband, so I want you to look them over carefully and decide which one you will marry."
Those words were echoing in Karina's mind as she stood on the threshold of the grand ballroom. The room was filled with exquisitely dressed ladies and handsome men. She thought she could simply blend into the crowd, but her arrival caused a stir among the eligible gentlemen in the crowd, and they flocked to her side en masse. It wasn't long before she was surrounded by her usual following of eager young men. Lord Stuart Rawlins managed to elbow his way through and took up a proprietary position at her side. Karina smiled coldly at him, as he eyed her bosom, and she pointedly opened her fan to conceal herself from his overly eager gaze.
Karina knew her father favored him above her other suitors, but she didn't like him. He was certainly handsome enough. His light brown hair was liberally scattered with golden highlights, and his eyes were a light blue. Karina could imagine that if they married, they would produce a passel of golden haired, blue eyed children, but she couldn't imagine that she would ever fall in love with their father. Lord Rawlins' superior attitudes never failed to raise her ire. She had to work to keep a civil tongue in her head when he started rambling on with his condescending tone, and she often excused herself just to keep from saying something rude in response. However, he seemed as thick skinned as one of the Nile crocodiles she had seen, and she despaired that he would ever heed her hints and leave her in peace.
"Miss Sinclair! How very beautiful you look tonight!" The words were crooned as he smiled warmly at her. He grasped her fingers and bent low over them to press a warm kiss to their knuckles.
Karina suppressed a shudder and gave him an icy smile, while pointedly withdrawing her hand from his grasp. "Lord Rawlins. I had thought you might not attend this evening," she drawled sarcastically, while looking away to scan the crowd.
Lord Rawlins ignored the subtle insult in her tone and her cool reception. "I wouldn't miss this evening for anything. I have looked forward to dancing with you all week." As he spoke, the orchestra launched into the first waltz of the evening. "Would you honor me with the first dance?" He looked at her expectantly.
While she would like nothing more than to refuse him, her upbringing demanded that she treat him with politeness. After all, he hadn't ever given her an excuse to do otherwise. "I shall be pleased to, Lord Rawlins."
He swept her into his arms and swirled her around the floor in a fluid movement. She had to admit, he was a good dancer, and she was at least grateful for the fact that he didn't trample on her toes. However, while they danced, he took advantage of the fact that her hands were unable to wield her fan, and his gaze lingered long and often on her bosom, leaving her feeling less than fully dressed. When she flushed lightly, he smiled, seeming to enjoy her discomfort.
"I understand your father has been having a bit of trouble with the Arabs lately," he said, as we whirled her through a series of turns.
"What makes you say that? I'm not aware of any problems." Karina looked around the room, pointedly refusing to meet his eye. She might not be able to refuse to dance with him, but she could refuse him the satisfaction of gaining her approval.
"I'm sure your father doesn't share all of the problems he encounters with you. He probably doesn't want to worry you."
Karina bristled at the condescension she heard in his voice. "As a matter of fact, Papa talks over almost all of his business dealings with me. He wants me to be aware of the complexities involved in managing our estates."
Lord Rawlins didn't sound convinced. "Yes, well, once you are married, your husband will naturally assume those duties. You won't have to concern yourself with problems such as dealing with a bunch of thieves, murderers and prostitutes."
Karina didn't try to disguise the loathing in her eyes. "It's strange. Papa always taught us to respect the Arabs and enlist them to work along with us. After all, this was their country long before we came."
Lord Rawlins looked at her as if she were a simple minded child. "My dear, if it were not for the English coming here, these ignorant fools would still be living in the dark ages. They are like wayward children. They require a strong hand to keep them in line. Otherwise, they will simply take over. But I am sure your father knows how to deal with them. Especially that thieving bunch of Bedouins that follow Sheik Rashid."
Her father had mentioned Sheik Rashid to her. He apparently had been causing problems for a handful of the landowners by refusing to acknowledge their exclusive claim to the land. He and his band of Bedouins wandered where they wished, regardless of the objections of the English. While her father couldn't side with him against his own countrymen, he did express sympathy for the fact that the Bedouin way of life was quickly disappearing. As long as they didn't destroy crops or livestock, her father said they should be allowed to continue their nomadic existence. Karina was inclined to agree.
She turned a cold stare on Lord Rawlins. "I have never heard of any thievery as a result of them camping on our land."
"I am sure they have stolen plenty that you are unaware of. I tell you, they are not to be trusted. You are simply too naïve to understand."
Karina opened her mouth to respond, but the music ended, and Lord Kincaid appeared to claim her for the next dance. Lord Rawlins reluctantly released her, bowing over her hand, but Karina felt him watching her, as she was whisked back onto the floor. In fact, she felt his eyes watching her throughout the evening. Lord Rawlins came to claim many of her dances, but when she danced with others, she always felt a slight prickling along her nape from his steady regard.
Karina didn't lack partners. Every dance was claimed, and her head began to pound lightly as she whirled around the floor. Finally, she begged to be excused after a brisk waltz with Lord Haversham. She made her way to the refreshment tables and selected a glass of light fruit punch to sip. She managed to find a somewhat secluded corner, where she would go unnoticed long enough to catch her breath. As she sipped the punch, her ears suddenly caught the sound of her name from some ladies who were gossiping in a nearby alcove, and she realized that they were unaware of her presence. Karina couldn't resist the urge to listen to a bit of their conversation, at least the bits that concerned her.
One of the ladies was whispering in a waspish tone, "Did you see Karina Sinclair's ball gown? It's simply scandalous. Every man here has had his eyes riveted on her bosom for the entire evening! Why, no proper lady stands a chance when the little hussy flaunts herself like that."
Karina stiffened and her cheeks burned with an angry blush, but she kept still and listened.
One of the other young ladies responded. "Oh Martha, it's not scandalous! I hate to admit it, but her gown is cut in the very latest fashion. All the young ladies in England are wearing gowns just as daring. It's just that Miss Sinclair is so beautiful, it doesn't really matter what she wears. All the men will be slobbering at her feet."
The third piped in. "Yes, and I wish she would hurry up and get married. Then, maybe the rest of us could find husbands."
"Isn't that the truth! Mama says she is a fool for not accepting Lord Rawlins' proposal. She says that the silly girl is playing hard to get, but she's going to end up losing a prime catch. He's so handsome that he is not likely to keep trying much longer, and there are plenty of other young ladies that would eagerly accept a proposal from him."
The other two giggled conspiratorially. "Yes, including any one of us."
"Well, my mother says that this is her third season, and if she doesn't choose a husband soon, she will be considered an old maid." The three of them giggled behind their hands. "Wouldn't that be a laugh? It would serve her right if none of the men gave her any notice next season. She's much too convinced of her own importance, and it would be wonderful to see her ego deflated a bit."
"Well, when her suitors begin to drift away and choose other ladies for their wives, she won't be so high and mighty!" The other two murmured in agreement and finally drifted to another topic of conversation.
Karina's was tense with anger at what she had overheard. She knew she had been the subject of jealous gossip for quite some time, but the idea that people were laughing about her grated on her pride. She lifted her chin a notch and stiffened her spine. No matter what others thought of her decision to wait for the right husband, she was determined to follow her instincts. She knew what was best for her own future, and she had to find a way to stall for more time.
Karina desperately wanted a bit of fresh air. She slipped out the French doors behind her and walked to the terrace rail to look out over the gardens. The moon was full, and light streamed over the carefully groomed hedges below. The scene looked so serene it didn't fit with her mood, and she pounded her fists on the balustrade as she gave a muted shriek.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a small movement and whirled to see a man standing in the shadows. Her heart leapt as he came towards her with the self-assured strides of a jungle cat, and he looked just as lethal. His hair was black and just a touch longer than was fashionable. A thick lock of his hair fell over his wide forehead, and shadowed his eyes. They were startlingly green, and they were deep set in a face that was exceedingly handsome. His cheekbones were carved with strong planes, and his nose was straight and aristocratic. His lips were sensuously full but firm, and Karina blushed lightly when she realized her eyes were lingering on his mouth.
He was very tall, and Karina could find no fault with his physique. Broad, well muscled shoulders tapered down to lean hips, and his long legs were straight and wonderfully made. His clothes were elegant, but not foppish. There was no lace adorning his wrists or neck, only a crisp white cravat, which sharply contrasted with his darkly tanned skin. He was by far the most handsome man Karina had ever seen, and she felt her pulse race with excitement.
"I didn't mean to startle you," he purred softly with a smile. "I just thought I should make my presence known, since you seemed to think you were all alone out here."
Karina managed to regain a small bit of aplomb. "That's quite alright, sir. It is not a private terrace." She gestured nervously with her hand. "I just came out for a bit of fresh air. The ballroom seemed quite stuffy." She had no idea why, but her heart was racing, and she felt slightly giddy.
He smiled, noticing the pulse trembling in her slender neck, and his teeth shone white in the moonlight. His eyes had not missed a single detail of her beauty, and he relished the thought of having her to himself for a few moments. "I know just what you mean. I am not much for parties myself. I prefer to avoid the crowds."
"I couldn't agree more. It all gets to be the same after a while. The same faces, the same conversations, I just had to get away for a few minutes." She was rambling on, but she couldn't seem to gather a logical thought with the way his eyes were watching her. A small nervous laugh escaped as she glanced away from her companion.
"Perhaps you would accompany me on a short stroll in the gardens," he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Karina flushed lightly and was glad of the moonlight, which disguised her heightened color. She couldn't remember being flustered by any man before. "I don't even know your name sir. We have yet to be introduced."
"I beg your pardon. Your beauty has momentarily made me forget my manners. Sir Richard Bryant at your service." He executed a deep bow with elegant grace. If he noticed her surprise, he ignored it as he cocked one eyebrow. "And you are . . .?"
Karina managed to execute an equally graceful and deep curtsy, while her mind raced to remember all the snatches of information she had heard about the elusive Lord Bryant. "Karina Sinclair, sir, Lord William Sinclair's eldest daughter." As she rose, she noticed his gaze lingering on her bosom, and she mentally groaned as she remembered she had not made use of her fan. However, for once, she wasn't too annoyed at having a man stare at her. In fact, she felt a flush of unexpected pleasure.
His gaze returned slowly to her face, and he offered his arm. "Now that we have been properly introduced, would you care to walk in the gardens with me?"
The idea of strolling alone in the garden with a strange man, without the benefit of a chaperone was scandalous. However, Karina was feeling slightly rebellious against all the silly dictates of society tonight. After all, her father had insisted that she find a husband tonight, so he could hardly fault her if she took some additional liberties. Besides, she was surprised to realize that she was intrigued by this man. After all that she had heard, she wondered if he weren't indeed different from all the other men that she had encountered.
Karina smiled her acceptance, and placed her hand on his arm. His arm felt firm and warm beneath her palm, and her fingers trembled with excitement as they made their way down the stone steps to the garden sprawled below.
The night was cool, and the breeze carried a strong scent of flowers as they strolled along the paths. They seemed to have the gardens to themselves. The beginning strains of yet another waltz drifted to them, sounding strangely haunting in the moonlight. "Would you care to dance?" he asked her, smiling.
Her surprise was evident. "Here?"
"Well, why not? Just pretend we're in the ballroom." He held out his arms, and she glided into them.
Her initial uncertainty evaporated when he pulled her against his powerful frame. He was an exceptional dancer, and her head whirled as he turned her effortlessly in circles on the flagstones. He smelled delightful, warm and spicy, and Karina found herself leaning closer to him. She had never danced so intimately before, and she blushed as she felt his thigh intruding between her own as he executed a series of tight turns that left her breathless. He held her pressed against his chest, causing her bodice to gap away from her breasts. She wasn't inclined to protest when the sensations were so pleasant, and she stole a glance at him from beneath her lashes.
He was smiling down at her, and she knew from his vantage point, he had an indecent view of her breasts. Their fullness strained against the silk until it seemed they were on display just for him, but still she couldn't find the desire to pull away. "You are exquisitely beautiful," he murmured, making no effort to disguise the direction of his gaze.
Karina smiled and looked away, pretending ignorance. "Thank you," was all she could manage. Her skin burned from the heat of his unwavering inspection, and she felt a thrilling excitement.
"I have been watching you all night. You don't seem to be enjoying yourself very much," Lord Bryant said smoothly. "Aren't you fond of at least one of your admirers?"
Karina looked at him in surprise. "I wasn't aware that you were watching me. In fact, I didn't notice you at all until I came out on the terrace."
His smile made it clear that her attempt at haughty dismissal hadn't had the desired effect. "That's because I didn't want you to notice me. And you didn't answer my question."
Her pulse raced, but she tried to appear nonchalant. "No, I have no special affection for any particular gentleman," she answered, with a flirtatious glance. "Now, it is my turn to ask a question. Why were you watching me?"
The music ended with a flourish, and he released her to bow gracefully. "Thank you, Miss Sinclair. Please say you will save me another dance for later."
Karina gave him a delighted grin. "I shall make a point of it, sir. Now don't try to change the subject."
He smiled and offered her his arm once again, and this time, she placed her arm through his as they resumed their walk. "It's very simple. You were the most enchanting woman at the ball tonight. I was intrigued, and I wanted to see if you were like all the other ladies of society."
"And what are they like, these other women? Your disdain for them is obvious," she let the last trail off in the form of a question, as she gave him a sidelong glance.
He grinned down at her. "They pretend disinterest, so that they can twist a man to their will. They tease and flirt, all the while scheming over which man would be the best catch. Which is the wealthiest, which has the most prestigious title?" Lord Bryant looked at her and raised an eyebrow, "That doesn't seem to be your game, or are you simply more subtle than the others?"
They wandered beneath a large tree and Karina stopped and leaned against the trunk as she looked up at him, her eyes inviting him to come closer. She was aware that she was behaving scandalously, which was totally opposite to her usual cool reserve with men, but she didn't care. She suddenly felt wonderfully alive and attractive, and she wanted to see if she really could catch the mysterious Lord Bryant's eye.
"I simply haven't found a man who holds my interest." At least not until tonight, she added in her mind. "My father would like nothing more than for me to choose a husband. However, I am determined that I won't marry except for love."
Lord Bryant threw his head back and laughed. His deep throaty voice was elementally appealing to Karina, but she tried to look annoyed as she said sternly, "I see nothing funny about my opinions. What do you find so amusing?"