Authors: Meredith Duran
Just let go.
In the end, he'd not even had time to scream. A wave had come, and she had fought to hold on; when she surfaced, sputtering, he was gone.
So silent, in his wake. Water slapped into her back. A fish splashed. But no birds flew this far out to sea. The sky was blue and empty, fiercely bright. Her eyes smarted to look upon it.
Could she not let go now?
She swallowed. Her arms ached, and also her stomach, from coughing up water. But the thirst was surely the worst part. So suddenly the storm had struck. Masts cracking. Mama screaming.
Mama and Papa waited for her now below.
The ocean waited too. It sulked sluggishly beneath the tropical sun; slipping into it would not be so hard. The heat felt like a warm hand pressing on her back, urging her down and away. No trace of the great ship remained; no one surveying these flat, empty waters would suspect what had passed here. No one was coming for her.
But her hands would not let go.
She stared at them. Mama was particularly fond of these hands; pianist's hands, she called them. "Turpentine will ruin them. Use gloves when you paint, Emmaline. Do not ruin your hands before your wedding."
What a strange thought Emma had found it, this idea of being wed. "I am hoping for a great adventure," she had told the captain last night at dinner. Later, in their quarters, her parents had upbraided her. She was going to Delhi to be married; she must not speak of the journey so lightly. Her intended was a man of some import. She must comport herself accordingly.
A tear fell onto her bare arm. Hotter than the sun, saltier than the sea water, it smarted down her blistering skin. Always those same, gentle words.
You are stubborn, my dear. We must guide you in this. You are drawing attention; your remarks were unseemly.
So gently her parents scolded her. So gently they despaired of their wayward, indecorous daughter.
The man had said the boat could be flipped. He had planned to do it himself. If one man could do it, could one woman manage?
On a deep breath, she pulled herself up higher on the hull. Her arms shook and burned from the strain as she inched her hand down the far side … farther, farther now…
But the distance to the gig's other lip was too great. Her strength failed her, and she slid back down with a grunt.
Back to where she'd begun. She closed her eyes.
The tears came faster now, but she would not let go.
She looked away.
He spotted her next in the green room, after the Commissioner slipped out of his grasp. "After dinner," the man mumbled, "if you truly insist on mixing business with pleasure, I would be most, most honored to speak with you." When Julian wheeled away in abrupt, frustrated dismissal, he discovered her behind him, the wineglass halfway to her lips. Again their eyes met, and she lowered the glass.
"Sir," she said evenly, bobbing a shallow curtsy. Something in her tone indicated she'd overheard the tail end of his argument with Fraser. He opened his mouth to respond—after all, the lady had seemed to be waiting for him—but she had already retreated in a swish of cornflower silk, and he was not in the mood for a chase.
He began to wonder about the coincidence when she drifted after him into the garden. Was she following him? In London he might have felt some faint, predatory stirring of interest—he enjoyed women, particularly those who spared him the trouble of pursuit—but he had a policy of avoiding memsahibs. Their husbands were rarely understanding, and they themselves tended to be so bored by life on a British station that passing love affairs quickly inflated to their entire reason for being. There was also an absurd set of ideas circulating about him in Anglo-Indian circles, variations on the theme of exotic Eastern eroticism, and he'd long since grown weary of it.
But she did not, in fact, seem to know he was there. She paused at the edge of the lawn, one hand coming to her throat, and seemed content to stand there, an abstracted look on her face. A breeze came over the grass, and her fingers loosened, letting the shawl flutter around her shoulders. Fleetingly, her pale lips curved in a smile.
Again, he was struck by the impression that she stood at a great remove from the scene around her. Curious. He studied her more closely, finding nothing of special note. Her hair was an unremarkable color, a curling, sun-faded dun that, in conjunction with her pale skin, made it seem as though all the energy of her being were focused in the brilliance of her deep blue eyes. A very odd sort of beauty, if a beauty at all. He wondered if she had recently been ill.
The thought made him impatient with himself. She was young, no more than twenty-two or -three years, with smooth white skin that bespoke a typical memsahib's routine. What was there to wonder about her? She would spend her days closeted in a bungalow, reading or at needlepoint. When the monotony began to wear, she would take heart in her zealous belief that the English way of life was the only one of merit in the world.
She muttered something beneath her breath. Despite himself, he leaned forward. He could not quite make it out. Surely she had not said—
With a violent gesture, she splashed her wine into the bushes. "Pig swill," she said clearly.
A bullock lowed in the distance. She felt a brief stirring of pity, imagining he was confused at the excess of liberty granted him by the native culture. As to why the cattle were encouraged to wander through the streets, Marcus had told her that the Hindus believed them to be some sort of deities, but he hadn't been able to elaborate. Marcus was often impatient with details.
This party, for instance. He should have told her, given her some warning regarding the people she would meet. Within five minutes it had become clear that Delhi society was no friend to her, that news of the shipwreck and her "dishonorable" rescue had tainted local opinion. Instead he'd let her march inside like a lamb to the slaughter, encouraging her to mingle with the sharp-tongued harpies whilst he conferred with the Commissioner.
All this, and then to discover he was having an affair with the hostess!
Well, it was clear that whatever they did when alone together, Marcus had not reviewed Mrs. Eversham's wine list for her.
was possessed of impeccable taste. With a scoff she tossed the remnants of her Bordeaux into the shrubbery. "Pig swill!"
The quiet laugh startled her, and she gasped, squinting into the shadows. "Who's there?"
A form emerged from the trees, offering her a toast from a silver flask. "Pig swill indeed," he said, and lifted the pocket-pistol to his lips for a long swallow.
She relaxed slightly at the Oxford drawl, which complemented a deliciously low, rough voice. "Pray do not relay my sentiments to our hostess, sir."
she added silently.
Another step brought him full out of darkness, and she caught her breath. It was the man from indoors—the one with whom she had nearly collided earlier. Once again, his height took her off guard. He was taller even than Marcus, and a full head over her own considerable height.
His eyes were a luminescent green-gold, catlike as they reflected the faint light spilling from the bungalow. They watched her as though he waited for something.
"Are we acquainted?" she blurted out—knowing very well they were not.
He gave her a faint smile. "No."
When he said nothing more, she arched a brow, returning rude stare for rude stare. At least, she hoped it was rude, for she suspected she might be ogling him. The man was unnervingly handsome—like something from a fever dream, brilliant and fierce, skin touched by gold and hair so black it absorbed the light. Earlier, indoors, she had found herself looking at him, thinking his face begged to be sketched. It would take only a few economical strokes—sharp, angular slashes for the cheekbones, a bold straight line for his nose, a fierce square for his jaw. Perhaps his lips would take more time. They were full and mobile, and saved his countenance from sternness.
He was very tanned. Doubt flickered through her mind, quashed as she considered his starched cravat and elegantly cut tailcoat. Of course he was English. The lazy grace with which he held himself made her aware of her own unmannerly slouch. She straightened, lifting her face toward the stars.
"A lovely night," she said.
"Pleasant weather," he agreed, eliciting a startled laugh from her.
"You must be joking!" she said, when he tilted his head in question. "It's dreadfully hot."
"Do you think so?" He shrugged. "Then I suggest you withdraw to Almora. The hill stations are quite popular this time of year."
His reference to the tradition of retreating to the Himalayan foothills during the hot weather sounded almost contemptuous. "You don't plan to go?"
"Business holds me here."
"Business. You're with the Company, then?" Most everyone she had met so far was in the employ of the East India Company, either as a civil servant or, like Marcus, as an officer in the army.
But he appeared mightily amused by the idea. "Dear God, no. I see my reputation does not precede me."
"Oh, is it very bad?" The question was out of her mouth before she could reconsider, and she blushed as he laughed again.
"It's even worse."
When she realized he wasn't going to elaborate, she ventured to continue. "You'll have to tell me about it yourself; I've only just arrived in Delhi, you see."
"Really?" He sounded surprised. "I didn't know they raised chits like you in England."
"Chits like me?" She frowned. He had settled back against a tree trunk and was smiling at her indulgently, as if—suddenly it came to her—she were some three-year-old who had just shown him a neat trick with her doll. "Are you being insulting?"
"I meant you seem to have some spirit."
being insulting," she decided. "To me and England both."
"Well then." He sighed and rolled his shoulders; his coat fit closely enough to reveal the ripple of arm muscles beneath the fabric. She wondered what he had done to acquire them; it was not at all the fashion. "Now you've discovered the first part of my reputation. I am considered terribly ill-mannered."
"But I knew that the moment I saw you! A gentleman would refrain from drinking spirits in the presence of a lady."
His brows rose. "And a lady would not call her hostess's wine—what was it? Pig swill, I believe?"
Her laughter was reluctant, but genuine. "All right, you've found me out. I'm a black sheep as well. Really, it's a wonder my intended will have me."
"Paragon of virtue, is he?"
"Not quite," she said dryly. "But they'll forgive him just about anything." The conversation was utterly inappropriate, of course; but she had forgotten how good it felt to joke and be silly with someone, and to be spoken to without those ever-present undertones of pity and speculation. "In fact, someone inside just called him the Darling of Delhi."
"He sounds dreadfully dull. Do I know him?"
"Oh, you must. This party is in honor of us, you know—of our engagement." His sudden stillness made her frown, and she searched his face, concerned that she might have embarrassed him. "If you don't know who the party's for, I promise not to tell."
"Oh, I know." His voice was very soft now. "That would make you Miss Martin."
"Indeed! And now you must tell me your name, so I won't be at a disadvantage."
His cat's eyes moved over her shoulder, and he smiled again, this time rather unpleasantly. "Here comes your betrothed," he said, and took a deep swig from the flask.
"Emmaline! There you are!"
She turned back toward the doors, shielding her eyes from the light. "Marcus!" He was yanking his cravat in place, and she wondered acidly if he hadn't been waylaid by their hostess somewhere between the Commissioner and the garden. "I was taking some air," she said. "Flannel is horribly ill suited to this climate."
Marcus stepped into the yard. "I hardly think that's appropriate for public discussion," he said severely. "And I did warn you about the weather, but you insisted—" His voice died away as he stared at her companion. "What in blazes are you doing here?"
"Lindley," the man said curtly. "A pleasure."
Marcus made a rude noise. "I'm sure I can't say the same. I had no idea Mrs. Eversham was so indiscriminate with her guest list."
Emma glanced rapidly between them. The stranger's expression was perfectly neutral; Marcus, on the other hand, was glaring and breathing like a bull. "Marcus, really! This gentleman—"
"Knows he is not welcome," Marcus said. "Not anywhere I am, and certainly nowhere near my future wife. I would suggest you leave now,