THERE WAS JUST something about the man.
Kim knew it from the moment she first laid eyes on him.
It was just turning from summer to fall, and the day was beginning to die. Dust dazzled in the streaks of color that still formed the sky as the sun sank, while, already, the bountiful full moon was starting to peek out and rise into what would become a velvet and star-studded night.
He was the most unusual man. Even motionless, he compelled attention-she had simply known he was there the minute he had come to stand beneath the gnarled oaks. His stature was impressive, his very stillness somehow provocative.
There was a sadness about him, a melancholy, really, that drew Kim Forrester in despite the amazing bounty of handsome, wealthy and eligible bachelors in the room. He was tall-certainly a plus-extremely fine in physical appearance and with the requisite broad shoulders offsetting a lean waist. His hair was smooth and dark, his face clean shaven. He wore an elegant gray evening frock coat with a crimson brocade vest and a fine, matching stovepipe hat.
Something undeniable informed his movement. Sleek, like a great cat. Fluid, as if he were filled with confidence. This was strange, because Kim did not know him, and she knew most of the young bucks here, the sons of the most affluent men in the affluent community of exceptionally fine houses along the battery of Charleston, South Carolina.
"I do declare!" Marybelle Claiborne said, whisking her fan a thousand miles an hour. "That gentleman, why, he is just scrumptious! So darkly dangerous, mysterious, and-downright alluring!"
"He's not from here," Alice Payne said, sniffing, her nose in the air. "I've heard there's something quite scandalous and horrible in his past!"
Alice Payne was known for her darling and elegant button nose. In Kim's silent opinion, it gave her the appearance of a little piglet. Adorable, but a piglet all the same.
Kim forced a smile. She'd promised there would be no scenes here. In her mind, the balls were mindless endeavors where parents tried to sell off their daughters like chattel, hoping for the highest prices and the very best family alliances. Ah, and alas, so much for the pride of America, the people who would not bow down before kings! Here, there was a new king, and it didn't even have a soul: cotton. Sugar, of course, was in the royal court, and land meant everything. It provided a palace for the king.
"So seductive, yes, and scandalous. Why? We don't know, do we? And that's part of what makes him scandalous! They say that he's from Texas, that he's wealthy beyond measure," Julia Lee chimed in. She winked. "He's given the other fellows a run for their money. I believe he's come here with Lieutenant Weston, and I believe that the lieutenant befriended him at a cattle sale. Business has brought him to Charleston. And we are, of course, my darlings, known for our Southern hospitality!" She rolled her large blue eyes.
As they watched the distant figure, Benton McTavish strode out to where the young ladies stood, sheltered by the leaves of a giant oak. He greeted them all with a swaggering bow and the tilt of his hat. "Afternoon, ladies. If you're gathered here in number for fear of the newcomers amidst our group, let me assure you. We of your community-"
He meant social rank, Kim was certain!
"-will absolutely assure that no harm will come to the damsels of Charleston!"
Kim looked away, teeth gritting. Benton McTavish never lifted a finger to do an honest moment's work. He rode to the hounds, drank brandy and smoked cigars and pretended to know about his father's business. Proud as a peacock over his sexual prowess, it was rumored he had already sired several children with one of the beautiful young slaves on his father's plantation. She wondered how the poor thing bore his attentions, but she knew as well that the woman had no choice. She hoped that at least she received lighter household duties in exchange for those she was forced to perform upon her back.
"Why, Benton, we'd never be afraid, not with big, strong fellows like you around," Alice said, slipping her arm through his.
Kim turned around, pretending great interest in the golden color of an oak leaf, lest she look straight at Benton and gag.
"Shall we, ladies? A true pleasure to escort you all in! I do believe that our supper is about to be served."
Kim hung back. She watched them go, wondering if, when they noticed that she wasn't with them, they would then discuss her as freely and maliciously as they had the stranger. As hard as her mother might try-as successful as she'd been in seducing Kim's very rich stepfather-Kim would never be among these elite. She was from the Caribbean, not Charleston, and her beauty seemed a curse, a cautionary tale about the seduction of good men, and nothing more.
It was thus that she was standing when the man came to her at last.
He smiled ruefully, and seemed to realize that she was here and yet far away, and among the crowd yet not of it.
"Miss, you seem at a loss. May I escort you in?"
His voice was rich, deep, cultured and bore an accent of the Deep South. The sound of it was like a sweep of honey into her bones. His eyes were darker than ebony and yet seemed to have a glow brighter than hell's fire.
"Forgive me. My name is Fox. I'm here at the urging of a Lieutenant Weston. I don't mean to be rude or impertinent in any way."
Kim found herself smiling. Of course not-not with that accent. He had been born and bred to play the game.
Her smile faded, and she frowned. A chill, and then a rush of heat flashed through her.
She knew because of her mother. Her mother, who had been raised in the Caribbean, who had been the grandchild of-
To her surprise, the sensation that had overcome her disappeared just as quickly. Her smile returned to her features. There was something so tragically sad about his eyes.
Looking at her, he somehow knew that she knew. The melancholy air about him deepened. "I would never hurt you," he said simply. He opened his mouth, as if there might be more explanation, but he repeated, "I would never hurt you."
She nodded. She thought about her mother, and the change that had come over her after the death of her father-her increased obsession with wealth and social prominence. She thought about her high-and-mighty-and quickly acquired!-stepfather, and the less-than-honorable way he looked at her when her mother wasn't watching.
She thought about the way her mother had spoken to her this very morning.
We will see you married off, young lady, betrothed today, and that is that. And if you don't choose among those who are proper, I will choose for you, and you will do as you are told!
"My name is Kimberly Forrester," she told him. "Kim."
"Kim, please," she whispered.
"Hardly proper." And his crooked smile was beautiful; he made her feel as if she were melting into the earth.
"Neither is this." She came closer to him.
Not proper at all. But her life was a sham of obedience, and she loathed the life she had been intended to lead. Women were well-groomed puppets. They followed ridiculous rules. They turned away while "men were men" and lived with the shame and, in time-as she had seen too often-the bitterness and hatred.
She knew that she wanted something different.
She wanted life, passion, something real-if only for a moment.
"Careful," he warned, looking down at her where she stood, so close. Those eyes of his were pure fire. "I'm not...I'm not the one to give you what you need."
"You will never understand what I need, Mr. Fox," she assured him.
"Escape," he said flatly.
"And can you help me escape?" she whispered.
"That...but little else. You don't understand-I can't, I won't, I haven't ever been able to stay near those...those I have loved, or those who touch my soul."
She lowered her head for a moment. Loved. Once upon a time, he had loved someone. And he knew what he was. Just like those playing this game here tonight, this game of charm, this charade of decency, he knew how to play the game he must.
She stared into his eyes. "I want you to help me. Take me away. Get me away from this awful place now."
"It's not so awful," he told her. "There is a certain honor here, as well. There is loyalty, and many a man here is a good man."
"Not one who might be intended for me," she assured him. "Please. I'll never look back. And I'll expect nothing in return."
He wanted to stop her. She thought that he might be nearly as seduced as she, perhaps by her appearance, more likely by her boldness.
Or maybe it was just bloodlust for a willing victim.
And still, he wanted to stop her.
"Before the barbecue?" he inquired, his tone light and teasing, and again, she felt that she was desperately in love with just the sound of his voice.
"Now." Her voice trembled; so did she.
He stared back at her.
"Do you really know what it could mean?"
They were alone. Alone in the late day when the sun had fallen completely at last and the moon was riding high in the sky, and the echo of words and laughter and conversation had faded away.
He took her suddenly by the shoulders, and his hands were powerful, almost rough.
"Do you really know what it means?" he demanded.
"Yes!" she cried.
He shook his head, angry with her, angry with himself.
"Don't you understand? I can't be there to pick up the pieces. I can't...I can't stay. I can never stay. I can never stay long in one place. Don't ask me this- Go. Go into your ball and marry the proper young fellow and bear fine young sons and-"
"Live with a man who will despise me in time as I despise him, and fade into the woodwork behind the fabric of charade?" she demanded softly.
"But you would trade it all-"
Now he wasn't melancholy. He was tortured, angry...and still beautiful. He seemed to sigh, his eyes meeting hers. He touched her hair, stroking, cradled her skull in his hand and drew her to him. "You may trade your very life," he told her.
His lips touched hers.
And she didn't care.