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Julian first noticed her because she looked so bored. Waiting for the Commissioner's arrival had put him on edge. He stood at the top of the room, half attending to the feverish chatter around him, his eyes fixed on the door. Rumors in the bazaar daily grew darker, and it was clear to him now that if Calcutta would not act, the local government must. Tonight he meant to exact a promise on that account.
He became aware of the woman gradually. It was her stillness that drew his attention. She was leaning against a wall, not ten feet away. Though several people surrounded her, sipping negligently at their wine and laughing, she seemed somehow apart. Tired of it all. Her eyes, which had been resting vacantly on the space over his shoulder, focused on him. They were a penetrating blue, and gave Julian a start. He saw that she was not bored at all, but unhappy.
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.
The garden was not cool, but it was quiet. Emma turned her face into the sultry breeze and let her eyes drift shut. Had Mrs. Greeley been speaking the truth? Either way, the woman must have been surprised at Emma's impassive reception of the news. It was unpleasant, of course; one didn't often learn that one's betrothed was conducting a torrid affair with a married woman. But the act seemed entirely in keeping with the person Marcus had become since their engagement.
Perhaps it was this land that had changed him so. Emma had been here only a few weeks, but already she sensed that India had taken hold of her: loosening her tongue, widening her eyes. Even now, when her mind should have been racing with the implications of Mrs. Greeley's words, the gentle swaying of the trees and the parrots twittering in the branches above distracted her from thought. The night air mantled her bare shoulders, thick and warm, so richly perfumed with night-blooming jasmine that she wondered if she would carry the scent back inside with her.
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. He 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." Or perhaps do, 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 cheek-bones, 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."
"You are 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, sir."
The man shrugged. "Of course." Slipping the flask inside his jacket, he sketched a shallow bow. "Accept my congratulations on your betrothal, Lindley. Miss Martin is utterly charming."
"You soil her by speaking of her," Marcus snapped. "Beware lest I call you out for it!"
Now she was truly alarmed. Something about this man -- perhaps his slight smile at Marcus's threat -- made her think he would be more than a match for her intended. "Gentlemen, this is absurd!"
"Come with me." His hand tightening cruelly into her forearm, Marcus all but dragged her back into the bungalow.
Inside, the sudden brightness of numerous lamps and candelabras made her wince. She pulled Marcus to a stop at the edge of the crowd, beneath one of the giant fans hanging from the ceiling. Its starched chintz streamers were wilting in the humidity. "I cannot credit your behavior," she said. "How could you behave so loutishly!"
"How could I?" Marcus pulled her around to face him. "Do you know who that man is? Do you know?"
"Stop shaking me!" She yanked her arm from his grip. The strong, sour odors of wine and sweat were rising from his skin. Maybe he had overindulged tonight, but that was no excuse. "What has come over you?"
"That is my cousin," he managed, his face purple. "That is the half-breed who would have the dukedom instead of me."
"That -- " She stopped, understanding. "That man is Julian Sinclair?"
"One and the same."
She turned away from him, staring blindly toward the dancers. Marcus had written to her of his second cousin, Julian Sinclair. Sinclair's father, Jeremy, had married a Eurasian, a woman of mixed English and native descent, when he had thought his brother the Marquess would have the dukedom. But within a short period, the cholera had killed Jeremy, and the Marquess had died in a hunting accident. That left Jeremy's young son as heir to the dukedom -- Julian, whose blood was one-quarter native.
Now Julian Sinclair was grown, and his grandfather, the current duke, had made sure through every legal means that his grandson would follow him in the succession. But Marcus could not accept the idea that a man of mixed blood might inherit the title, when Marcus, pure-blooded English and in line after Sinclair to inherit, might himself wear the strawberry leaves so well.
"He didn't seem Indian," she whispered to herself.
"Of course he didn't!" Marcus exploded. "The Duke has done everything in his power to assure it -- Eton, Cambridge, a seat in the Commons. But while a man can ape his betters, he can't change his blood. The proudest title in Britain is to go to a half-breed mongrel!"
She looked back to him, stunned. "Marcus, you sound so...hateful."
He stared at her, his mouth thinning into a grim line. "Is that so? To think, you've been here only five days, and already you're starting to pant after the natives. What would your parents say?"
She winced. A servant was passing with a tray of wine; she reached out and snared a glass. "That is cruel."
"Cruel but true. Even in death, they knew the honor of being Martins."
She took a deep swallow of the wretched Bordeaux and shut her eyes. Again and again it returned to haunt her -- this image of her parents' faces, so small and pale as the ocean closed over them. The pain of their deaths did not fade; most nights, she still awoke weeping from nightmares of drowning with them. Only a miracle had guided her to the gig on which she had floated for almost a day; only God had given her the strength to cling to it as the hot sun beat down and she despaired of ever being found.
She set the glass on a sideboard and looked directly at him. The atmosphere was close and torpid, and sweat was trickling down her nape; strange, then, that she felt so cold. "You think it would have been more honorable to let myself drown?"
After a mute, stubborn moment, his face softened, and he reached for her hands. "No, my dear, of course not."
But she wondered. After all, he could play with his precious honor all he liked, risking it with his conspicuous philandering, his exorbitant gambling debts. But to have that honor tarnished by a woman! Surely it must irk him, to risk being made a laughingstock by upholding a betrothal with a woman of questionable reputation -- a woman who had arrived in India sheltered not under the watchful gaze of her mother and father, but by a crew of rough-and-ready sailors. Those sailors had saved her life, but Anglo-Indian society was wondering if they hadn't robbed her of something even more important: her virtue.
Naturally, the fact that her betrothed's virtue was completely and publicly compromised was of no import at all.
She lifted her chin. "Oh, I was only speaking with him, Marcus. Do let's forget it. There's no need to look so grim."
Marcus exhaled. His eyes began to search the crowd beyond her shoulder. "I'm wondering why he hasn't been thrown out by now."
"Perhaps because he's the Marquess of Holdensmoor?"
He slanted her a sharp glance. "I'm not in the mood for your cheek, Emmaline. And for your information, the man's a threat to the Crown. He's been stirring up talk of a possible insurrection, trying to goad us into abandoning Delhi. Thinks our native troops might turn on us."
"Gracious! Might they?"
He waved a dismissal. "It's treason even to think it. No, of course they won't. We give them the bread their families eat in the morning. Just because of some silly nonsense at Barrackpore -- "
Yes, she remembered that. It had been all the talk in Bombay upon her arrival in the port city. A sepoy, a native soldier, had turned on his British officers. He had shot two of them before he was stopped by his superiors; what had been so alarming, if she recalled correctly, was that none of the other natives had attempted to disarm him.
"He does have a point," she said. "It's a bit troubling."
"It was one isolated incident in more than two hundred years on this continent. And the man was directly hanged. We'll have no more trouble along those lines, I assure you."
"But if Lord Holdensmoor is partly native, perhaps he has heard something -- "
"Emmaline!" Marcus wheeled to face her. "Yes, the man is part native, and for all I know, he's trying to scare us out of Delhi so the natives can take it back! In fact, I believe that is exactly what he is up to, and I have told the Commissioner so! Now cease your ignorant speculations and make yourself pleasant for your host."
"My host? Do you mean the one you're cuckolding?"
All color bleached from his face. Oh dear. Blond hair didn't look so well on skin that particular shade of green. "What did you just say?" he asked.
"So it's true." Nausea rolled through her stomach. "Well. I suppose you're going to tell me you still love me anyhow."
His eyes, such a guileless shade of blue, searched her face. "Of course I do."
She managed a smile. "Yes. We have loved each other quite a long time, haven't we? Since we were born, I believe."
"Since forever," he said, with an admirable show of sincerity. "And whatever rumors you hear to the contrary, there is no woman in the world for me but you. Some people are jealous, you see, and they would spread vicious gossip in order to harm me -- "
"I know," she interrupted, and then stopped, swallowing hard when her voice would have broken. How sad to realize that she could no longer believe a word he said. "Marcus, I think I'd like to leave now."
He considered her for a moment, then gave a short nod. "Of course. But I will call on you at the Residency tomorrow. We'll discuss this, and you'll see, my dear. These lies -- you must simply set them from your mind."
"Naturally," she murmured. "If you'll find Lady Metcalfe for me?"
She leaned back against the wall, watching him push his way through the congratulatory crowd as he went in search of her chaperone. Even though his back was turned, she knew every gesture that he made, sensed every smile that crossed his face. Such was the familiarity of twenty long years -- decades of their families plotting to bring them together, arranging their betrothal, choosing the names of their unborn children. The Martins and Lindleys had never known that the only two who would live to fulfill their dream would be the very two who had never been quite as enthusiastic as the rest: the bride and groom themselves.
She closed her eyes, turning her head to press her cheek against the cool bungalow wall. The windows rattled in a strong gust of hot wind, and the candles flickered with the inrush of jasmine and darkness. Strange, how the night called to her so sweetly, promising a lovelier, more innocent place. Yes, India seemed to draw out her very soul. Perhaps that was why she felt so bruised inside -- as though her defenses had been laid bare, allowing a terrible melancholy to settle in her core.
Surely she wasn't grieving over Marcus? She had abandoned her childish dreams of romantic love three years ago, the first time she'd learned of one of his many paramours. She'd been heartbroken then, but her mother had explained quickly enough: marriage was not about something as illusory and fleeting as love. It was about alliances, partnerships, the continuation of the family line. Marcus's grand and crumbling estates would be consolidated with the vast Martin wealth, and the two of them would create a dynasty that would compensate for her mother's failure to produce male issue.
So, what, then, could account for this sudden foreboding? It slid like a shadow between her and the brightly lit room, leaving her with the odd conviction that she stood apart, watching a great panorama like those they sometimes displayed in the British Museum. This room seemed like Pompeii before the volcano eruption, or Rome before the fall: a civilization on the edge of disaster.
A shiver slid over her, and she glanced away, starting as she found herself locked in a vibrant emerald gaze: Lord Holdensmoor, coming in from the gardens. His face was expressionless as he stared at her. In defiance of both Marcus and her own gloomy reverie, she offered him a smile.
His own was rakish and swift, the effect of it on his aloof, aristocratic features dazzling to behold. And then he too was gone, his tall, broad form swallowed up by the crowd in a cloud of crushed silk and waving peacock feather fans.
Copyright © 2008 by Meredith McGuire