Ever since Gideon Harwood rescued Christian English from brutal captivity in India, Christian can remember nothing of his former life. Indeed, the only thing he knows for certain is that he loves Gideon’s sister, Bethany. But before they can wed, he must find out who he really is.
Bethany can’t hide from her past forever—and she knows that any future with Christian is an impossible dream. She can’t risk the scandal of her shameful secret coming out, and the sooner she leaves Critchley Manor, the better.
Everything changes when a chance encounter reveals Christian’s true heritage. But reclaiming his rightful place in London society will have consequences neither he nor Bethany could have imagined. With Christian facing danger from an unexpected adversary—and Bethany forced to confront her own unresolved history—can she find the courage to choose love?
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By Heather Cullman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Heather Cullman
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For the third time in as many days, the Turkish soldiers came for him at dawn. As they had done the previous two mornings, they led him up to the stone-flagged courtyard where they stripped him of the filthy rags his captors had tossed at him to replace the fine clothing they had stolen from him upon his arrival at the bagnio, as slave prisons were called in Algiers. When he stood naked, save for a pair of short, queerly draped white pantaloons that hung almost indecently low on his lean hips, they marched him through a squat archway and out a brass-studded oak door, the sole exit from the octagonal fortress.
Today he was to be sold at the slave market. Today he would become an object, a mere thing to be prodded and inspected, used and perhaps abused, kept or sold, little better than a dog at the mercy of his new owner's whims.
Today his humanity would be flayed from his soul.
Or so his guards had informed him in the odd slave language of Lingua Franca, a dialect he had immediately recognized as an amalgam of bastardized Italian, French, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish. Exactly why he so readily understood it, as well as several other languages that were spoken among his fellow captives, he did not know. Then again, he could remember nothing that had happened in the time before he had awakened from a terrible brain fever a month earlier, including his name and how he had come to be in his current straits.
In short, he was a man without a past. As for his future, well, he didn't dare contemplate it for fear that he would break from his horror at what his guards said awaited him there. For as he knew from the chilling examples that had been made of those prisoners who had succumbed to their panic, his captors had little patience and no sympathy whatsoever for unmanly displays of weakness.
Just thinking about his captors' brutality filled his mouth with the metallic taste of fear. Their favored punishment was the bastinado, a hellish torture wherein the victim's feet were thrust through loops of rough rope attached to a stout pole, which was then twisted to tighten the loops until they cut into the victim's ankle flesh. When the pole had been hoisted up on the shoulders of two strong men and the victim dangled helplessly upside-down, he was beaten with thick sticks, half the blows directed to the soles of his feet while the other half landed on his bare buttocks. For minor infractions the sentence could be as few as a dozen blows, with more serious crimes commanding five hundred, a lethal number that few survived.
Having suffered the savage punishment himself several times before his captors were satisfied that he had indeed lost his memory and was not merely pretending so as to avoid paying the enormous ransom demanded from wealthy captives, which by his appearance he was suspected of being, he had taken pains to be a model prisoner to prevent further encounters with the bastinado. Thus when one of the six Turkish soldiers escorting him viciously elbowed him in the kidney to propel him toward an alley that twisted between the high whitewashed walls to his left, almost bringing him to his knees from the pain, he stoically swallowed the cry that sprang to his lips and docilely did as directed.
Though it was just after dawn the raw heat from the newly risen sun had already seared the air into an irradiated haze that now undulated in the early morning glare, distorting the surroundings like the view through the rippled glass of an ancient window. As with so much of what he thought, he was struck with curiosity at why he would conceive such an analogy. Could it be that he was an architect and would take such notice of windows? Or was he perhaps a solicitor in the business of property management, who made a practice of assigning dates and values to buildings by assessing telltale details such as their window glass?
He gave a mental shrug, resigned to the fact that he could not even begin to answer such questions, or the ones that arose from simply contemplating them. Whatever he was—or more correctly, had been—the only thing he knew for certain was that his life had been one of relative ease. For as his captors had so astutely pointed out, his hands were soft and free from the calluses that would have marked him as a member of the laboring class; a gentleman's hands, they called them. He only prayed that whatever he had been in his former life had left him endowed with a skill that would prove valuable to his new owner, thus saving him from being relegated to a life of backbreaking menial drudgery.
It was blessedly cooler in the alley they now traversed. Only the faintest wisps of sunlight escaped down into the shadowy passage, the bright beams having been shredded by the sharply protruding upper floors of the windowless houses on either side. Now and again they passed an open door where dark-robed figures paused from their work to peer outside, their gloom-shrouded eyes drawn by the clatter of the soldiers' iron-tipped shoes as they punished the pavement beneath them. The entire passage held the putrid stench of rotting refuse mingled with the nauseating reek from the dung-fouled drains below.
While most slaves were herded through the streets in groups in order to be seen by prospective buyers, those determined to be particularly valuable were paraded singly, guarded on all sides by muscular Turkish soldiers dressed in showy red-and-gold vests over white silk shirts and pantaloons, their hands poised on the gilded hilts of the deadly scimitars that were tucked into their twined red sashes. Exactly why he was considered to be more valuable than most of the other captives, he did not know, especially since many of the other men were much stronger than he was in his current illness-wasted state.
Hmmm. Perhaps it was for the reason another prized captive, a handsome golden-haired Italian youth named Matteo, had suggested: it was because of his pretty looks. Not having access to a mirror and unable to remember what he looked like, he could not say for certain that such was the case. All he knew for sure was that there was something about his person his captors had deemed remarkable.
Up and down the winding streets and alleyways they continued to troop, each passage presenting an exotic new world of sights, sounds, and smells. There was a tiny bazaar with crude wooden stalls where Arabs swathed in white burnouses rubbed elbows with black-robed Jews and hooded desert nomads, and an alley of cavelike workshops where skilled Moorish artisans in wide-legged pantaloons wrought their colorful wares. At one corner they passed a gathering of wealthy Turks sporting ornate silk turbans, several of whom paused in their conversation to stare at him with dark, assessing eyes, as if seriously considering his purchase. Soon thereafter they stopped in a small, shady square where he was displayed before a fountain, around which men in white cloaks sat crossed-legged on woven rugs, serenely smoking clay pipes.
There were even several occasions when servants chased after them and bade them to enter a grand house along their route, in which the owner, usually accompanied by an attendant or two, inspected him in the entry hall. After the inspection was completed and the commanding soldier had conversed with the potential buyer, the soldier barked either "Christian!" or "English!" thus signaling the conclusion of the interview and that they were to take their leave.
Christian. English. During his imprisonment he had been addressed by those names so often by both his captors and fellow prisoners that he now automatically responded to them. As a result and for the lack of a real name to call his own, he had begun to think of himself as Christian English.
By now they were mounting a seemingly endless flight of stone steps that led from a cool, dank alley way back up into the sun-parched world above. When the steps at last terminated, Christian found himself at the edge of a wide road that was currently being used as a marketplace. The stark fear that had been curdling in his belly for the past month exploded into panic at the sight of it, almost shattering his fragile control.
Was this the place, then? Was this where he would be sold? It was said that a man lost a part of his soul the day he entered into slavery. Were these his last moments of being whole?
Wanting nothing more than to bolt, to somehow escape what awaited him, but knowing that there was no escape for him, Christian allowed the soldiers to promenade him through the marketplace, bleakly resigned to his fate. With each step his panic grew, rising from his chest in great, wrenching sobs that threatened to escape with every breath he took. Desperate to tamp them down, to maintain what little dignity and composure he had left, he tried to force his thoughts away from what awaited him by studying the sights around him.
Produce and goods of every description were laid out for sale on the cobblestones. Peddlers bearing baskets filled with trinkets and treats wove through the milling throng, loudly hawking their wares. At one end of the makeshift marketplace stood a number of tethered donkeys, camels, and horses; at the other a crowd had assembled to watch fancifully garbed acrobats perform gravity-defying balancing acts. Rather than divert his mind, as he had hoped, the chaotic noise and pungent foreign smells served only to deepen his chilling sense of foreboding.
Apparently, the slave auction was not being held at that particular market, for after displaying him atop a stone block and calling out what Christian assumed were his selling points, they jostled him off down a street leading toward the sea, not halting again until they reached a small piazza near the docks. One glance at the ragged men squatting on the hot pavement of the open courtyard, their naked flesh slick with sweat and turning red beneath the broiling sun, instantly told him that they had at last reached the Bedestan, as the slave markets were called. Today there appeared to be close to a hundred slaves for sale, with every color, age, and nationality represented among their ranks.
Rather than being ordered to join the group, as he fully expected to happen, Christian was instead escorted to where a half-dozen men squatted near the domed mosque bordering the far side of the piazza. When he spied Matteo's curly golden head, and that of a muscular, copper-haired Dutch giant named Gregor, he easily deduced that the prized slaves had been segregated from the less valuable ones, most probably to better exhibit them. Now assuming the required squatting position next to Matteo, as indicated by his guards, he watched the buyers congregate from beneath his lowered lashes, gritting his teeth against the pain in his feet as they were seared by the scorching pavement.
The buyers were predominately Turks and Moors, with an occasional Jew or Arab apparent here and there, all of them decked out in opulent trappings that marked them as important men. As the buyers wandered among the slaves to engage in a last-minute inspection, the servants accompanying them rushed to spread their masters' rugs and cushions beneath the shaded arcade built along three of the four piazza walls. That task completed, they retreated a respectful distance away to brew coffee over portable oil stoves.
Of all the offerings there today, Christian and Matteo seemed to excite the most interest, and they spent the better part of the next hour being poked and examined. Sometimes they were made to run and jump, after which the prospective buyer pressed his ear against their chests to assess the soundness of their hearts. At other times the customer would jam his hands into their mouths, prodding and peering at their teeth in an attempt to judge their age and health. There were even several occasions when palmists were brought forth to read the lines of their palms, so as to tell whether they would give their masters a long lifetime of service and bring them good fortune.
Or so the guard overseeing the exhibition of the prized captives had told him. The guard, a fierce, hawk-faced man with dark, leathery skin and hard, obsidian eyes set deep under the prominent ridges of his bushy black eyebrows, seemed to take sadistic pleasure in whispering to Christian each potential buyer's most perverse proclivities in the aftermath of every inspection. Christian had just returned to his place for what seemed like the hundredth time, his knee joints screaming in agonized protest to his constant rising and squatting, when the group was approached by two bejeweled men in the company of a Turk whom Christian had identified as the slave dealer.
After the party had strolled past the prized offerings, pausing briefly before each man to appraise his qualities and converse among themselves, the dealer barked something in his native language, pointing first at Christian, then to Matteo. Promptly Christian was seized and dragged forward by the guard at his side, while one of the guards accompanying the slave dealer did the same with Matteo. When one of the buyers, an Arab by his appearance, indicated an American youth whom Christian had heard the other captives refer to as Samuel, he too was brought forward.
Now standing several feet from their companions, each captive was shadowed by a guard, and the dealer and his customers moved in for a closer inspection. They began with Matteo. After examining his teeth and seeming to find them to their liking, the Arab murmured to his fellow buyer, who grinned and stepped back. Now whispering to the slave before him, saying something that made the handsome Italian blanch beneath his tan, the buyer began brushing his fingertips across Matteo's broad chest, touching and stroking the sculpted planes, pausing at each flat nipple to tweak it until it pebbled.
Matteo stiffened beneath the Arab's foul caresses, his jaw clenching and lips crimping tight, as if struggling to stifle his protest.
Smiling at his response the Arab moved downward, lightly tracing the tapering lines of his torso. Over his ribs he drifted, petting here, teasing there, pausing on his belly to thoroughly explore the muscular grid. After doing something to his navel, something that made the Italian flinch and gasp, the buyer dipped lower yet, following the tawny line of hair leading from Matteo's navel down into his filthy white pantaloons. Now watching Matteo's face, hungrily gauging his reaction, the Arab gave the garment a jerk that sent it sliding to the ground, leaving Matteo fully exposed.
To Matteo's credit he remained stock-still, his blue eyes fixed and staring straight ahead as both buyers leaned in to inspect his male parts. As Christian watched the Arab began to fondle Matteo, deftly stroking and teasing, coaxing an erection. It was all Christian could do not to vomit from the bile rising in his throat, aware that he, too, would most probably be subjected to the same humiliating treatment.
Apparently, he looked as sick as he felt, because the guard at his side chuckled and whispered, "It is your unlucky day, English. Ghassan bin Hanif seeks a new garzone." At Christian's frown, he grinned in a way that exposed several rotten teeth and explained, "A garzone is a male concubine. Not a bad life for a slave, unless his master has a taste for the dark pleasures, which Ghassan bin Hanif is rumored to have. It is said that any slave unlucky enough to be chosen as his garzone is doomed. Those who do not kill themselves out of misery die from his perversions. Sometimes one does survive, but by the time Ghassan bin Hanif is tired of him he has been reduced to something less than a man, and his life is hardly worth living."
By now the Arab had finished with Matteo and was repeating his obscene performance with Samuel. Samuel, who could not have been a day over fourteen, was a comely youth with straight dark hair, clear green eyes, and the smooth, gangling body of a boy struggling to grow into manhood. Unlike Matteo, who had borne his demeaning ordeal with stoicism, Samuel wept and tried to shrink from the Arab's touch, only to be immobilized and forced into submission by the guard at his side.
Unable to watch, Christian looked away.
Again his guard chuckled. "Take heart, English. Perhaps the other man, the mulatto slave breeder, will buy you. Every year he buys a handsome white male slave to serve as a stud for the black females he keeps on his farm outside the city. Sadly"—he heaved an exaggerated sigh, his lips twisting into a cruel smile—"once the slave has planted his seed in the women, he is sold to labor in the stone quarry. Shall I tell you about life in the quarry?"
Christian closed his eyes, his heart now drumming in his ears too loudly to hear what the guard said next. A stud or a whore. Dear God! He was doomed either way. The bubbling panic he had held at bay since entering the piazza burst at the ghastly prospect, rioting through his veins to erupt in his brain in a delirious flash of frenzied rebellion.
Excerpted from Secrets by Heather Cullman. Copyright © 2004 Heather Cullman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Set in the 1800's, London. Very very good, I enjoyed it. A little bit slow in the middle of the book, but once you pass it, it's ok. You can't help but feel for Christian/Alexander. Bliss is some character, would love to see a story on her love experience. I'm sorry that I didn't read the first book, 'Scandal', as soon as I can I'm buying the book.
He had been enslaved by an Indian mogul and had no memory except that his name was Christian. He was rescued by fellow Englishman Gideon Harwood. Christian returned to England with his new found friend in hope of learning who he was. He fell in love with Gideon's sister, Bethany. Yet without knowing who he was or if he had a wife somewhere, Christian could do nothing. ..................... Then a miracle happened during a party. Someone recognized him. Not only was Christian unmarried, but he was also Marquess of Northwick, believed to have been killed by pirates at sea. But finding out he had a title and was unattached did not solve all his problems. Christian's memory was still mostly blank. Bits and pieces popped up at strange times. In addition, his family did not want him to marry Bethany, a commoner. They had another deb picked out for him. And if things could not get worse, he kept having 'accidents' that nearly kill him! ...................... As much as Bethany loved Christian and was happy that he found his family, she knew she could not marry him. Her past was marred and her family kept her secret quiet. Christian knew the truth of her past, well as much as her own family knew, and did not care. But Bethany withheld a vital name from her past. A name that could easily get Christian killed and her family shamed. ................. **** This is the second in Heather Cullman's Regency trilogy. Fans of this author get to see how Gideon and his family are doing since the previous book. It began with such a bang that I was enthralled from the first page. Readers see just a bit of what poor Christian went through while he was being sold as a slave. .................. This is a provocative tale that I was hard pressed to set aside when my reality intruded, and I could hardly wait to get back to the story. Recommended! ****