Scarlet Fairfax was sure she was going to faint. There was a wonderful topsy-turvy feeling in her stomach, and her legs had suddenly become all kinds of trembly. He was kissing her, he was properly kissing her, and it was wonderful, the most wonderful thing in the whole world. But it was also scandalous, and wicked, and forbidden, and if they were caught her reputation would be in tatters, but she didn’t care. The night was full of magic, with an almost full moon shining its mystical glow on the manicured lawn, but they had found a shelter under a low tree with an enormous canopy of branches providing them a dark, covert place for their nocturnal naughtiness. The seductive swarthy Turkish prince was sending warm shivers through her entire body, and she didn’t want it to end, not ever, but moments later it did, and as he pulled back he moved his lips to her ear.
“You are very beautiful at kissing.”
Taken aback at his surprising compliment, Scarlet’s already flushed face burned with fresh heat, and her weak legs turned even weaker as she leaned against him, his hard stomach and muscled chest feeling strong enough to halt a sword.
“So are you,” she mumbled, completely void of anything else to say.
“My family will be missing me,” he said urgently, raising his head to look across the grounds toward the ballroom. “I must go back inside. You wait a few minutes before following, please.”
“Don’t leave,” she begged. “I will positively collapse if you go.”
“Lean against the tree trunk,” he said hastily, and with a last peck on the cheek, he gently pushed her from his arms and was gone.
“I shall pass out, I’m positive of it,” she exclaimed, her voice a hushed whisper, and closing her eyes she let out a long, low moan.
Scarlet spent much of her life being positive of many things. She was a determined, passionate soul, and believed what she believed with a vengeance, regardless of what it might be. The colour of her bedroom simply had to be the exact shade she could see in her mind or it would be a disaster, the fabric of her new dress had to have a certain drape or she would never be able to wear it, and at that precise moment, she was absolutely sure she was about to faint. How could she not? It didn’t matter that she was in the garden of her family’s lavish country home, and there were at least hundred guests just a short distance away. It didn’t matter at all. She’d just been properly, amazingly kissed for the first time in her young life. What else would she do but faint?
“I will,” she continued, mumbling to herself. “I will fall on the cold, hard ground and mother will find me here in the morning, covered in frost and barely alive. Maybe I won’t make it, and she will have lost her daughter at only eighteen years old. How horribly tragic!”
“I doubt that. You’re too stubborn to die. Besides, there’ll be no frost tonight.”
Jumping in fright, her blue eyes flashed open and she stared into the darkness.
“Really, Richard,” she exclaimed, dramatically sighing as he stepped forward, “you shouldn’t do that!”
“And you shouldn’t be out here kissing a Turkish prince. You shouldn’t be out here kissing anyone, certainly not like that. That was, well, that was much too—”
“You devil! You’ve been spying on me!” she snapped, cutting him off.
“Someone has to keep an eye on you,” he declared, moving slowly toward her.
“I don’t need anyone to keep an eye on me, and if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be you, Richard Portman.”
“Scarlet, what were you thinking?” he asked earnestly, his face coming into full view. “If anyone saw you out here alone with him—”
“Nobody did except for you,” she barked before he could finish, “and you’re just a nosy parker. I shall kiss who I please.”
“Are you saying you’ve been kissed by others?” he inquired, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “I certainly hope not, and especially not like that! The chaste touching of the lips that I saw that day in the park, that was bad enough, but my goodness, what I just witnessed a minute ago? Scarlett, that would ruin you.”
“None of this is any of your business,” she retorted, feeling her face suddenly flame with a burning heat once again, “and I’m going back inside.”
“Do it discreetly,” he warned, “or your parents will—”
“Oh, poof, who cares!”
“You really do have a dreadful habit of interrupting a person,” he said testily, “and actually, Scarlet, I care, I care quite a bit as a matter of fact, and if you don’t, you should, you know very well you should. You should also know I’m only looking out for you as I always have. Are we not the very best of friends?”
“I suppose, yes, I suppose we are,” she grumbled, knowing full well everything he was saying was true, “but that doesn’t mean you can spy on me and boss me around. If you do that again we shan’t be friends anymore.”
“I shall always look out for you,” he said calmly. “I have no choice. When I think of all the scrapes I’ve—”
“You’re impossible,” she said impatiently, interrupting him yet again, “and now I’m cold. You’ve kept me out here talking far too long. I’ll see you inside,” and with a toss of her very pretty dark head, she flounced across the grass, hoping there’d be no wet spots or green stains on her expensive white satin shoes.
Scarlet and the olive-skinned, black-eyed prince had been flirting with each other for over a month, though the initial two weeks had involved only covert stares. The summer season was in full swing, and Scarlet had been attending many of the balls and dinner parties with her parents. When she’d first laid eyes on the enigmatic foreigner, she had been transfixed, and when he’d caught her glance from across the room, though she could feel herself blushing, she couldn’t take her eyes off him. His clothes were like none she’d ever seen, and his shockingly white teeth and thick red lips had mesmerized her.
Every party she’d attended after that first shared gaze, she would hunt through the crowd searching him out, and though she always found him, an official introduction didn’t happen for ten painful days. It had been worth the wait. Her mother, the Lady Ruby Fairfax, had been utterly taken with the exotic royals, and had invited them to Lansdale Manor, the Fairfax family estate in the country. When the invitation had been accepted, Scarlet didn’t sleep a wink for nights on end.
Finally able to carry on sanctioned conversation, for the next two weeks Prince Amir and Scarlet didn’t miss an opportunity to sit next to each other at dinners, and find quiet corners in which to chat. When it was time to leave for the country, knowing Amir would be staying at the house for two whole days, Scarlet was beside herself with excitement. Sitting in the train when the family had departed London, she’d stared out at the countryside, telling herself she would marry the magnificent young man and become the princess of Turkey. It was completely impossible, of course, but Scarlet, as Scarlet was apt to do, convinced herself she could make it happen. Nothing would stop her! Positively nothing!
The only person she’d confided in was her dearest friend, Richard Portman. They had grown up as close as any brother and sister, a relationship that was encouraged by both families, and spent many hours playing happily, then squabbling, then playing happily again, both in London and in the country.
Their friendship had been inevitable. Their entrepreneurial fathers had attended school together, started a company, and built a hugely successful business, Portman and Fairfax. They had their fingers in many pies. David Portman was the lawyer, and Sloan Fairfax was the man who could wave his wand and make finances do all sorts of things, at least that’s what Scarlet’s mother always said.
When Scarlet had confessed to Richard that she was passionately in love with the Turkish prince, Richard hadn’t been surprised. The dark, alluring, dramatically different Amir was exactly the sort of boy to whom Scarlet would be drawn, but Richard wasn’t concerned at the time. The royal family were only visiting, and the prince would soon be gone. A week later Scarlet would find something, or someone, new and exciting as she always did, but then he’d seen something that was very disturbing.
It was a few days before the weekend at Lansdale Manor. He’d decided to stop in and visit with Scarlet and her mother as he often did, and as he walked down the street, he’d spotted Amir and Scarlet a short distance from Scarlet’s house, tucked away in the shadows of an alley. They appeared to be in deep, hushed conversation, and he’d immediately sensed something untoward was afoot, so he’d kept watch. Just moments later, he’d seen Amir slip away and Scarlet quickly follow.
It was inappropriate for a young woman in Scarlet’s position to be out on the street by herself, and he’d almost stopped her when she’d first started out, but his curiosity had gotten the better of him, so he had pursued them into a nearby park.
What he’d witnessed shocked him.
Scarlet could be unpredictable, sometimes reckless, and oftentimes irresponsible, but to be alone with a man and allow him to brush his lips against hers, a man with whom there could be no possibility of a future, and a man from a foreign land… it was beyond comprehension. The handsome prince had held her hands and whispered in her ear, and though the secret meeting had only lasted for a few minutes, it was out of bounds and Richard had been appalled. Amir had left first, and when Scarlet had stepped from behind the bush, Richard had confronted her.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” he’d demanded, but to his dismay, Scarlet had refused to talk with him and had hurried away to return home.
He’d barely said two words to her since, but he’d been watching both her and Amir inside the ballroom, and when he’d seen them sneak off into the garden, he’d immediately slipped away to see what they were up to, though he could well guess.
“What am I to do about this?” he muttered, watching her walk quickly across the terrace and disappear through the French doors. “That was not the kiss of a gentleman. My dearest Scarlet, I fear for you. If he dared to kiss you in such a passionate way, there’s no telling what else he might do.”
Shaking his head, Richard started across the lawn. He was worried, very worried, and he had no idea how to prevent Scarlet from further rash behaviour. Didn’t she know she was taking a terrible risk?
“Perhaps she needs a proper scare,” he mumbled as he strode up the steps onto the terrace. “I’ll certainly be keeping my eye on her for the remainder of this weekend.”
Reaching the same doors through which Scarlet had just entered, he paused to gather himself, then marched confidently inside. Glancing around the ballroom he saw Amir standing with his father, a tall, rather ominous-looking man, with thick black eyebrows and a perpetual frown. Even when the sultan grinned, the two deep lines just above the bridge of his nose made him appear to be simultaneously scowling and smiling. Continuing to scan the crowd, he finally saw Scarlet talking with two of her girlfriends. They were giggling, and he prayed she hadn’t told them anything about her disgraceful interlude under the tree. Nothing spread gossip faster than the busy tongues of foolish young women. He was about to move across and intervene when he saw her mother walking toward him.
“Richard, my dear, how are you?” Ruby Fairfax asked as she approached. “Why haven’t we seen you these last few days? I was expecting you to stop in before we all came down here. Where have you been hiding?”
He wanted to tell her he’d been reticent about visiting before leaving for the country because he’d seen Scarlet canoodling with Prince Amir behind the bushes in the park. He wanted to tell her that he’d confronted her irresponsible daughter and they’d had words, though that wasn’t strictly accurate because Scarlet had not spoken to him. Instead he nodded his head politely and smiled back at her.
“My father has been keeping me very busy at his office, as I’m sure you are aware.”
“We’re all very proud of you,” she said warmly. “My husband tells me you’re doing exceptionally well.”
“That’s very kind of him. I try, but I must say, there are days that are more challenging than others.”
“I’m sure, but I’m equally sure you’re more than up to the task. It won’t be long until you’re out of school and working there full-time.”
“No, not long at all, just a few months and I’ll be finished. I can’t quite believe it.”
“Will you be joining the men for the shooting party tomorrow morning?”
“I’m thinking about it. Do the sultan and his son shoot?”
“I believe the sultan does,” Ruby replied. “Apparently Prince Amir isn’t fond of the sport, so Scarlet has volunteered to show him around the stables, perhaps take him for a gallop.”
“Just the two of them? Alone? Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but, uh…”
“I understand,” she said, lowering her voice, “you’ve always been so protective of her, and under normal circumstances we wouldn’t allow it, but apparently Amir asked Scarlet if he could see some of the horses we have here. They’re great horsemen, the Turks. Did you know that?”
“Yes, I had heard,” he replied, feeling exceedingly disturbed by the news.
“Scarlet assured me they’ll remain in the front fields in full view. It’s not as if they’ll be heading off into the woods, and after all, he is a prince. How does one deny a prince?”
“I see,” he nodded.
“Oh, dear, that’s Mrs. Foster calling me over. She said she wanted to talk to me about something rather important before dinner is served. Excuse me.”
Richard silently grimaced as he watched her move elegantly through the room. Ruby had been like a second mother to him, and he wished he could tell Ruby about the dangerous relationship developing between Prince Amir and her daughter.
“Perhaps I should,” he murmured as he shifted his eyes back to Scarlet. “I don’t know what to do about this, but one thing is for certain. I will not be taking my eyes off you tomorrow morning, young lady. Not for a single second.”