Read an Excerpt
3 March 1816the Pool of London
It is grey, just as everyone said it would be.' Ashe Herriard leaned on the ship's rail and contemplated the wide stretch of the River Thames before him through narrowed eyes. It was jammed with craft from tiny skiffs and rowing boats to those that dwarfed even their four-masted East Indiaman. 'More shades of grey than I had realised existed. And brown and beige and green. But mostly grey.'
He had expected to hate London, to find it alien, but it looked old and prosperous and strangely familiar, even though every bone in his body wanted to resent it and all it represented.
'But it is not raining and Mrs Mackenzie said it rains all the time in England.' Sara stood beside him, huddled in a heavy cloak. She sounded cheerful and excited although her teeth were chattering. 'It is like the Garden Reach in Calcutta, only far busier. And much colder.' She pointed. 'There is even a fort. See?'
'That's the Tower of London.' Ashe grinned, unwilling to infect his sister with his own brooding mood. 'You see, I have remembered my reading.'
'I am very impressed, brother dear,' she agreed with a twinkle that faded as she glanced further along the rail. 'Mata is being very brave.'
Ashe followed her gaze. 'Smiling brightly, you mean? They are both being brave, I suspect.' His father had his arm around his mother and was holding her tight to his side. That was not unusualthey were unfashionably demonstrative, even by the standards of Calcutta's easy-going European society, but he could read his father and knew what the calm expression combined with a set jaw meant. The Marquess of Eldonstone was braced for a fight.
The fact that it was a fight against his own memories of a country that he had left over forty years ago did not make it any less real, Ashe knew. Estranged from his own father, married to a half-Indian wife who was appalled when she discovered her husband was heir to an English title and would one day have to return, Colonel Nicholas Herriard had held out until the last possible moment before leaving India. But marquesses did not hold posts as military diplomats in the East India Company. And he had known it was inevitable that one day he would inherit the title and have to return to England and do his duty.
And so did his own son, Ashe thought as he walked to his father's side. He was damned if he was going to let it defeat them and he'd be damned, too, if he couldn't take some of the burden off their shoulders even if that meant turning himself into that alien species, the perfect English aristocrat. 'I'll take Perrott, go ashore and make certain Tompkins is here to meet us.'
'Thank you. I don't want your mother and sister standing around on the dockside.' The marquess pointed. 'Signal from there if he's arrived with a carriage.'
'Sir.' Ashe strode off in search of a sailor and a rowing boat and to set foot on dry land. A new country, a new destiny. A new world, he told himself, a new fight. New worlds were there to conquer, after all. Already memories of the heat and the colour and the vivid life of the palace of Kalatwah were becoming like a dream, slipping though his fingers when he would have grasped and held them. All of them, even the pain and the guilt. Reshmi, he thought and pushed away the memory with an almost physical effort. Nothing, not even love, could bring back the dead.
There must be reliable, conscientious, thoughtful men somewhere in creation. Phyllida stood back from the entrance to the narrow alleyway and scanned the bustling Customs House quay. Unfortunately my dear brother is not one of them. Which should be no surprise as their sire had not had a reliable, conscientious bone in his body and, his undutiful daughter strongly suspected, not many thoughts in his head either beyond gaming, whoring and spending money.
And now Gregory had been gone for twenty-four hours with the rent money and, according to his friends, had found a new hell somewhere between the Tower and London Bridge.
Something tugged at the laces of her half-boots. Expecting a cat, Phyllida looked down to find herself staring into the black boot-button eyes of the biggest crow she had ever seen. Or perhaps it was a raven escaped from the Tower? But it had a strange greyish head and neck, which set off a massive beak. Not a raven, then. It shot her an insolent look and went back to tugging at her bootlaces.
'Go away!' Phyllida jerked back her foot and it let go with a squawk and went for the other foot.
'Lucifer, put the lady down.' The bird made a harsh noise, flapped up and settled on the shoulder of the tall, bare-headed man standing in front of her. 'I do apologise. He is fascinated by laces, string, anything long and thin. Unfortunately, he is a complete coward with snakes.'
She found her voice. 'That is unlikely to be a handicap in London.' Where had this beautiful, exotic man with his devilish familiar materialised from? Phyllida took in thick dark brown hair, green eyes, a straight nosedown which he was currently studying herand golden skin. Tanned skin in March? No, it was his natural colour. She would not have been surprised to smell a hint of brimstone.
'So I understand.' He reached up and tossed the bird into the air. 'Go and find Sara, you feathered menace. He swears if he's confined to a cage,' he added as it flew off towards the ships at anchor in mid-stream. 'But I suppose I will have to do it or he'll be seducing the ravens in the Tower into all kinds of wickedness. Unless they are merely a legend?'
'No, they are real.' Definitely foreign, then. He was well-dressed in a manner that was subtly un-English. A heavy black cloak with a lining that was two shades darker than his eyes, a dark coat, heavy silk brocade waistcoat, snowy white linenno, the shirt was silk, too. 'Sir!'
He had dropped to one knee on the appalling cobblestones and was tying her bootlaces, allowing her to see that his hair was longan unfashionable shoulder-length, she guessedand tied back at the nape of his neck. 'Is something wrong?' He looked up, face serious and questioning, green eyes amused. He knew perfectly well what was wrong, the wretch.
'You are touching my foot, sir!'
The gentleman finished the bow with a brisk tug and stood up. 'Difficult to tie a shoelace without, I'm afraid. Now, where are you going? I assure you, neither I nor Lucifer have any further designs upon your footwear.' His smile suggested there might be other things in danger.
Phyllida took another step back, but not away from assaults on her ankles or her equilibrium. Harry Buck was swaggering along the quayside towards them, one of his bullies a pace behind. Her stomach lurched as she looked around for somewhere to hide from Wapping's most notorious low-life. Nausea almost overcame her. If, somehow, he remembered her from nine years ago
'That man.' She ducked her head in Buck's direction. 'I do not want to be seen by him.' The breath caught in her throat. 'And he is coming this way.' Running was out of the question. To run would be like dragging a ball of wool in front of a cat and Buck would chase out of sheer instinct. She hadn't even got a bonnet with a decent, concealing brim on it, just a simple flat straw tied on top of a net with her hair bundled up. Stupid, stupid to have just walked into his territory like this, undisguised and unprepared.
'In that case we should become better acquainted.' The exotic stranger took a step forwards, pressed her against the wall, raised one cloak-draped arm to shield her from the dockside and bent his head. 'What are you doing?'
'Kissing you,' he said. And did. His free hand gathered her efficiently against his long, hard body, the impudent green eyes laughed down into hers and his mouth sealed her gasp of outrage.
Behind them there was the sound of heavy footsteps, the light was suddenly reduced as big bodies filled the entrance to the alleyway and a coarse voice said, 'You're on my patch, mate, so that'll be one of my doxies and you owe me.' One of my doxies. Oh God. I can't be ill, not now, not like this.
The man lifted his head, his hand pressing her face into the soft silk of his shirt. 'I brought this one with me. I don't share. And I don't pay men for sex.' Phyllida heard Buck's bully give a snort of laughter. Her protector sounded confident, amused and about as meek and mild as a pit bull.
There was a moment's silence, then Buck laughed, the remembered hoarse chuckle that still surfaced sometimes in her worst dreams. 'I like your style. Come and find my place if you want to play deep. Or find a willing girl. Ask anyone in Wapping for Harry Buck's.' And the feet thudded off down the alleyway, faded away.
Phyllida wriggled, furious with the one man she could vent her feelings on. 'Let me go.'
'Hmm?' His nose was buried in the angle of her neck, apparently sniffing. It tickled. So did his lips a moment later, a lingering, almost tender caress. 'Jasmine. Very nice.' He released her and stepped back, although not far enough for her peace of mind.
She usually hated being kissed, it was revolting. It led to other things even worse. But that had been surprising. And not at all revolting. It must depend on the man doing the kissing, even if one was not in love with him, which was all Phyllida had ever imagined would make it tolerable.
She took a deep breath and realised that far from being tinged with brimstone he actually smelled very pleasant. 'Sandalwood,' she said out loud rather than any of the other things that were jostling to be uttered like, Insolent opportunist, outrageous rake. Who are you? Even the words she thought would never enter her headKiss me again.
'Yes, and spikenard, just a touch. You know about scents?' He was still far too close, his arm penning her against the wall.
'I do not want to stand here discussing perfumery! Thank you for hiding me from Buck just now, but I wish you would leave now. Really, sir, you cannot go about kissing strange women as you please.' She ducked under his arm and out onto the quayside.
He turned and smiled and something inside her did a little flip. He had made no move to detain her and yet she could feel his hand on her as though it was a physical reality. No one would ever hold her against her will, ever again, and yet she had felt no fear of him. Foolish. Just because he has charm it does not make him less dangerous.
''Are you strange?' he asked, throwing her words back to her.
There were a range of answers to that question, none of them ladylike. 'The only strange thing about me is that I did not box your ears just now,' Phyllida said. And why she had not, once Buck had gone, she had no idea. 'Good day, sir,' she threw over her shoulder as she walked away. He was smiling, a lazy, heavy-lidded smile. Phyllida resisted the urge to take to her heels and run.
She had tasted of vanilla, coffee and woman and she had smelt like a summer evening in the raja's garden. Ashe ran his tongue over his lower lip in appreciative recollection as he looked around for his father's English lawyer.
I will send the family coach for you, my lord, Tomp-kins had written in that last letter that had been delivered to the marquess along with an English lady's maid for Mata and Sara, a valet for his father and himself. The most useful delivery of all was Perrott, a confidential clerk armed with every fact, figure and detail of the Eldonstone affairs and estates.
Given that your father's rapid decline and unfortunate death have taken us by surprise, I felt it advisable to waste no time in further correspondence but to send you English staff and my most able assistant.
His father had moved fast on receiving the inevitable, unwelcome news. Ashe was recalled from the Principality of Kalatwah where he had been acting as aide-de-camp to his great-uncle, the Raja Kirat Jaswan; possessions were sold, given away or packed and the four of them, along with their retinue, had embarked on the next East Indiaman bound for England.
'My lord, the coach is just along here. I have signalled to his lordship and sent the skiff back.'
'The end of your responsibilities, Perrott,' Ashe said with a grin as he strode along the quayside beside the earnest, red-headed clerk. 'After seventeen weeks of being cooped up on board attempting to teach us everything from tenancy law to entails by way of investments and the more obscure byways of the family tree, you must be delighted to be home again.'
'It is, of course, gratifying to be back in England, my lord, and my mother will be glad to see me. However, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to assist the marquess and yourself.'
And the poor man has a hopeless tendre for Sara, so it will probably be a relief for both to have some distance between them. It was the only foolish thing Ashe had discovered about Thomas Perrott. Falling in love was for servants, romantics, poets and women. And fools, which he was not. Not any longer.
His father had done it and had recklessly married for love, which was fortunate or he, Ashe, wouldn't be here now. But then his father was a law unto himself. In any case, a soldier of fortune, which is what he had been at the time, could do what he liked. His sonthe Viscount Clere, he reminded himself with an inward wincemust marry for entirely different reasons.
'My lord.' Perrott stopped beside a fine black coach with the crest on the side that had become familiar from numerous legal documents and the imposing family tree. It was on the heavy seal ring his father now wore.
Liveried grooms climbed down from the back to stand at attention and two plainer coaches were waiting in line behind. 'For your staff and the small baggage, my lord. The hold luggage will come by carrier as soon as it is unloaded. I trust that is satisfactory?'
'No bullock carts and a distinct absence of elephants,' Ashe observed with a grin. 'We should move with unaccustomed speed.'
'The fodder bills must be smaller, certainly,' Perrott countered, straight-faced, and they walked back to the steps to await the skiff.
'There you are!' Phyllida dumped her hat and reticule on the table and confronted the sprawled figure of her brother, who occupied the sofa like a puppet with its strings cut.
'Here I am,' Gregory agreed, dragging open one eye. 'With the very devil of a thick head, sister dear, so kindly do not nag me.'
'I will do more than nag,' she promised as she tossed her pelisse onto a chair. 'Where is the rent money?'
'Ah. You missed it.' He heaved himself into a sitting position and began to rummage in his pockets. Bank notes spilled out in a crumpled heap on the floor. 'There you are.'
'Gregory! Where on earth did this all come from?' Phyllida dropped to her knees and gathered them up, smoothing and counting. 'Why, there is upwards of three hundred pounds here.'
'Hazard,' he said concisely, sinking back.
'You always lose at hazard.'
'I know. But you have been nagging me about the need for prudence and economy and I took your words to heart. You were quite right, Phyll, and I haven't been much help to you, have I? I even call your common sense nagging. But behold my cunningI went to a new hell and they always want you to win at first, don't they?'
'So I have heard.' It was just that she hadn't believed that he would ever work that sort of thing out for himself.