|THE UNTAMED BRIDE - EXCERPT
December 11th, 1822
Southampton Water, England.
Del stood on the deck of the Princess Louise, the twelve hundred ton East Indiaman on which he and his small household had left Bombay, and watched the Southampton docks draw steadily nearer.
The wind whipped his hair, sent chill fingers sliding beneath his greatcoat collar. From horizon to horizon, the sky was an unrelieved steel-gray, but at least it wasn't raining; he was thankful for small mercies. After the warmth of India, and the balmy days rounding Africa, the change in temperature as they'd headed north over the last week had been an uncomfortable reminder of the reality of an English winter.
Artfully angled, the ship surged on the tide, aligning with the dock, the distance between lessening with every moment, the raucous cries of wheeling gulls a strident counterpoint to the bellows of the bosun as he directed the crew in the dicey business of bringing the heavy ship alongside the timber dock.
Del scanned the dockside crowd waiting to greet those on board. He was under no illusions; the instant he stepped off the gangplank, the Black Cobra's game would be afoot again. He felt restless, impatient for action-the same compulsion he was accustomed to feeling in those moments on the battlefield when, with his horse skittish beneath him, held on a tight rein, he would wait with his men for the order to charge. The same anticipation rode him now, yet with sharpened spurs.
Contrary to his expectations, the trip had been anything but uneventful. They'd sailed from Bombay only to fall foul of a storm, which had left them limping down the African coast with one of their three masts crippled. Once they'd reached Cape Town, repairs had taken three full weeks. While there, his batman, Cobby, had ferreted out the information that Roderick Ferrar had passed through a week ahead of them, on the Elizabeth, a fast frigate, also bound for Southampton.
He'd taken note, and so hadn't fallen victim to the knives of the two cult assasins left in Cape Town who had subsequently joined the Princess Louise as crew, and lain in wait for him on two separate moonless nights as they'd sailed up the west coast of Africa.
Luckily, the cultists had a superstitious aversion to firearms. Both assassins were now feeding the fishes, but Del suspected they'd merely been scouts, sent to do what they could if they could.
The Black Cobra itself lay ahead of him, coiled between him and his goal.
Wherever that proved to be.
Gripping the railing of the bridge deck, of which, as a senior company officer, albeit resigned, he'd been given the freedom, he looked down at the main deck, to where his household staff - Mustaf, his general factotum, tall and thin, Amaya, Mustaf's short, rotund wife who served as Del's housekeeper, and Alia, their niece and maid-of-all-work-sat on their piled bags, ready to disembark the instant Cobby gave the signal.
Cobby himself, the only Englishman in Del's employ, short of stature, wiry, quick and canny, and cocky as only a cockney lad could be, stood by the main railing at the point where the gangplank would be rolled out, chatting amiably with some sailors. Cobby would be first among the passengers to disembark. He would scout the immediate area, then if all was clear, signal Mustaf to bring the women down.
Del would bring up the rear, then, once they'd assembled on the dock, lead the way directly up the High Street to the Dolphin Inn.
As luck would have it, Wolverstone had nominated the inn Del habitually used when passing through Southampton. He hadn't, however, been there for years, not since he'd set sail for India in late '15, just over seven years ago.
It felt like more.
He was quite certain he'd aged more than seven years, and the last nine months, while they'd been hunting the Black Cobra, had been the most draining. He almost felt old.
Every time he thought of James MacFarlane, he felt helpless.
Seeing more scurrying below, hearing the change in the bosun's orders, feeling the slight bump as the padding slung along the ship's side met the dock, Del shook off all thoughts of the past, and determinedly fixed his mind on the immediate future.
Sailors leapt down to the dock, hauling thick ropes to the capstans to secure the ship. Hearing the heavy rattle and splash as the anchor went down, then the squealing scrape as the railing was opened and the gangplank angled out, Del headed for the companionway to the main deck.
He swung off it in time to see Cobby scamper down the gangplank.
Reconnaissance, in this instance, wasn't simply a matter of scanning for those with dark skins. Southampton was one of the busiest ports in the world, and there were countless Indians and men of other dark-skinned races among the crews. But Cobby knew what to look for - the furtiveness, the attention locked on Del while attempting to remain inconspicuous. If there were cultists waiting to strike, Del was confident Cobby would spot them.
Yet it was more likely the cultists would watch and wait - they preferred to strike in less populated surrounds where escape after the event was more assured.
Del strolled to stand with Mustaf, Amaya and Alia. Mustaf nodded, then went back to scanning the crowd; he'd been a sowar - a cavalryman - until a knee injury had seen him pensioned off. The knee didn't discompose him in other ways; he was still a good man in a fight.
Alia bobbed her head, then resumed casting shy glances at the young sailors who rushed back and forth along the deck.
Amaya looked up at Del with liquid brown eyes. "It is very very cold here, Colonel-sahib. Colder than my cousin's house in Simla in the winter. I am being very very glad I was buying these shawls from Kashmir. They are just the thing."
Del smiled. Both Amaya and Alia were well wrapped in the thick woolen shawls. "When we stop at a big town, we'll have to get you some English coats. And gloves, too. They'll help keep out the wind."
"Ai, yes - the wind, it is like a knife. I am understanding that saying now." Amaya nodded, plump hands folded in her lap, thin gold bangles on her wrists peeking from beneath the edge of one shawl.
Despite her sweet face and matronly disposition, Amaya was quick-witted and observant, and Alia would instantly obey any order from her uncle, aunt, Del or Cobby. When necessary, the small group operated as a unit; Del wasn't overly worried over having Amaya and Alia with them, even on the upcoming, more dangerous leg of their journey.
Regardless, knowing the Black Cobra cultists' vindictiveness, he wouldn't take the chance of leaving the women anywhere, even with Mustaf to guard them. To strike at him, the Black Cobra was perfectly capable of wiping out his household, simply to inspire fear, and to demonstrate his power.
Human life had long ago lost all meaning for the Black Cobra.
A shrill whistle pulled Del's attention back to the dock. Cobby caught his eye, snapped a jaunty salute. All clear.
"Come." Del took Amaya's arm and helped her to her feet. "Let's go down and head for our inn."
Cobby had commandeered a man with a wooden cart. Del waited with the women while their luggage was ferried down the gangplank and loaded in the cart, then he set off, leading the way off the dock and straight up High Street. The Dolphin wasn't far; Mustaf followed with the women close behind, with Cobby bringing up the rear, ambling alongside the carter, eyes constantly shifting this way and that as he chatted.
As Del walked up the street, he found his gaze drawn downward - to the cobbles that covered the ground, to the first steps he was taking on English soil after so many years away.
He wasn't sure what he felt. An odd sense of peace, perhaps because he knew this time his travels were over, a sense of anticipation over what his new and as yet unstructured future might hold, all tinged with a healthy dose of apprehension over what lay between this moment and being able to get started on shaping his new life.
Their mission to bring the Black Cobra to justice.
He was in it now. There was no going back, only forward. Ahead, through whatever fire the opposition might send his way.
Raising his head, he filled his lungs, looked about. It felt exactly like the moment after the charge began.
The Dolphin was a town landmark. It had stood for centuries, and been refurbished several times; it currently sported two wide bow windows fronting the street, the solid front door in between.
Del glanced back along the street. He couldn't see any likely cultists, but there were plenty of people, carts, and the odd carriage thronging the cobbled thoroughfare - plenty of cover for anyone watching.
They would be watching.
Reaching the inn, he opened the door and went inside.
Securing suitable rooms was no difficulty; his years in India had left him very wealthy and he wasn't of a mind to stint either himself or his small household. The innkeeper, Bowden, a solidly built ex-sailor, responded appropriately, cheerily welcoming him to the town, and summoning lads to help with the luggage as the others joined Del in the foyer.
With the rooms organized and their bags dispatched, and the women, Mustaf and Cobby following the luggage up the stairs, Bowden turned to Del. "Just remembered. I've two letters waiting for you."
Del turned back to the counter, brows rising.
Reaching beneath it, Bowden produced two missives. "The first - this one - came on the mail coach nearly four weeks ago. The other was left last evening by a gentleman. He and another gentleman have looked in every day for the last week or so, asking after you."
Wolverstone's escorts. "Thank you." Del accepted the letters. It was mid afternoon, and the inn's public rooms were quiet. He sent an easy smile Bowden's way. "If anyone should ask for me, I'll be in the tap."
"Of course, sir. Nice and quiet it is in there at present. Just ring the bell on the bar if you need anything."
With a nod, Del sauntered into the dining room and through an archway into the tap, a cosy room toward the back of the inn. There were a few patrons, all older men, gathered about small tables. He went to a table in the corner where the light from the rear window would allow him to read.
Sitting, he examined the two missives, then opened the one from the mystery gentleman.
The lines within were few and to the point, informing him that Tony Blake, Viscount Torrington, and Gervase Tregarth, Earl of Crowhurst, were holding themselves ready to escort him further on his mission. They were quartered nearby, and would continue to call at the inn every evening to check for his arrival.
Reassured that he would be moving forward, in action again soon, he refolded the letter, tucked it inside his coat, then, mildly intrigued, opened the second missive. He'd recognized the handwriting, and assumed his aunts had written to welcome him home, and to ask and be reassured that he was, indeed, heading up to Humberside, to the house at Middleton on the Wolds that he'd inherited from his father and that remained their home.
As he unfolded the two pages, crossed and recrossed in his elder aunt's spidery script, he was already composing his reply - a brief note to let them know that he had landed and was on his way north, but that business dealings on the way might delay him for a week or so.
Reading his aunt's salutation, followed by an enthusiastic, even effusive welcome, he smiled, and read on.
He wasn't smiling by the tine he reached the end of the first page. Laying it aside, he deciphered the rest, then tossed the second sheet on the first, and quietly, but comprehensively, swore.
After staring at the sheets for several minutes, he gathered them up, rose and, stuffing the sheets in his pocket, made his way back to the inn's foyer.
Bowden heard his footsteps and came out from his office behind the counter. "Yes, Colonel?"
"I understand a young lady, a Miss Duncannon, was due to arrive here some weeks ago?"
Bowden smiled brightly. "Yes, indeed, sir. I'd forgotten - she asked after you, too."
"Indeed. I take it she's left and headed north?"
"Oh, no, sir. Her ship was delayed, too. She didn't get in until last week. Quite relieved, she was, to learn you'd been delayed, too. She's still here, waiting on your arrival."
"Ah. I see." Del suppressed a grimace, and started making plans. "Perhaps if you could send word to her room that I've arrived, and would appreciate a moment of her time?"
Bowden shook his head. "No use at present - she's out, and she's taken her maid with her. But I can tell her as soon as she comes in."
Del nodded. "Thank you." He hesitated, then asked, "Is there a private parlor I might hire?" Somewhere where he and his unexpected burden could discuss her onward journey.
"I'm sorry, sir, but all our parlors are presently taken." Bowden paused, then said, "But it's Miss Duncannon herself as has the front parlor - perhaps, seeing she's waiting to see you, you might wait for her in there?"
"An excellent notion," Del responded dryly. "And I'll need to hire a carriage."
But again Bowden shook his head. "I'd like to oblige, Colonel, but this close to Christmas all our carriages are spoken for. Miss Duncannon herself took the last of our post-chaises."
"Fortuitous," Del murmured. "I was wanting the carriage for her."
"Well, then." Bowden grinned. "All's well."
"Indeed." Del pointed to the room to the right of the foyer. "The front parlor?"
"Aye, sir. Go right in."
Del did, shutting the door behind him.
With white plaster walls and heavy timber beams crossing the ceiling, the parlor was neither overlarge nor cramped, and boasted one of the wide bow windows looking out on the street. The furniture was heavy, but comfortable, the pair of chintz-covered armchairs well-supplied with plump cushions. A well-polished round table with four chairs stood in the middle of the room, a large lamp at its center, while a crackling fire sparked and flared in the grate, throwing welcome heat into the room.
Gravitating toward the hearth, Del noticed the three watercolors above the mantlepiece. They were landscapes depicting green pastures and meadows, lush fields and richly-canopied trees beneath pastel blue skies with fluffy white clouds. The one in the middle, of rolling heathland, a vibrant patchwork of greens, caught his eye. He hadn't laid eyes on such landscapes for seven long years; it seemed odd to gain his first sense of home via pictures on a wall.
Glancing down, he drew out the letter from his aunts; standing before the fire he scanned it anew, searching for some insight into why the devil they'd thought to saddle him with the duty of escorting a young gentlewoman, daughter of a neighboring landowner, home to Humberside.
His best guess was that his doting aunts had some idea of playing matchmaker.
They were going to be disappointed. There was no place for a young lady in his train, not while he was a decoy for the Black Cobra.
He'd been disappointed when he'd opened the scroll he'd selected and discovered he hadn't picked the original letter. Nevertheless, as Wolverstone had made clear, the missions of the three decoys would be vital in drawing out the Black Cobra's men, and ultimately the Black Cobra himself.
They needed to lure him into striking, and for that they needed to reduce his cultists sufficiently to force him to act in person.
Not an easy task, yet by any reasonable estimation it should be within their collective ability. As a decoy, his role would be to deliberately make himself a target, and he didn't want any extraneous young lady hanging on his arm while he was so engaged.
A tap on the door had him hesitating, then he called, "Come."
It was Cobby.
"Thought you'd want to know." His hand on the knob, his batman hovered by the door he'd closed. "I ducked back down the docks and asked around. Ferrar arrived over a week ago. Interesting thing is he had no bevy of natives with him - seems there was no room left on the frigate for more than him and his man."
Del raised his brows. "Definitely interesting, but no doubt he'll have had cultists coming in on other ships."
Cobby nodded. "So you'd think. But it does mean he won't necessarily have all that many just at present. Might have to resort to doing his own dirty work." Cobby grinned malevolently. "Now wouldn't that be a shame?"
Del smiled. "We can but hope."
He nodded a dismissal and Cobby left, closing the door behind him.
Del glanced at the clock ticking on a sideboard. It was already after three, and what daylight there was would soon fade. He fell to pacing slowly before the fire, rehearsing suitable words with which to break the news to Miss Duncannon that, contrary to his aunts' arrangements, she would be heading north alone.
* * *
It was well after four o'clock, and he'd grown increasingly impatient, before a feminine voice in the foyer, well modulated yet with an unmistakably haughty tone, heralded the return of Miss Duncannon.
Even as Del focused on the parlor door, the knob turned and the door swung inward. Bowden held it open to permit a lady - not so young - in a garnet red pelisse, her dark auburn hair swept up and tucked under a jaunty hat, who was juggling a plethora of bandboxes and packages, to enter.
She swept in, her face alight, a smile curving lush red lips, as Bowden hurriedly said, "I believe this is the gentleman you've been waiting for, miss."
Miss Duncannon abruptly halted. Animation leaching from her face, she looked across the room, and saw him. After a moment, her gaze slowly meandered upward, until it reached his face.
Then she simply stared.
Clearing his throat, Bowden retreated, closing the door behind her. She blinked, stared again, then baldly asked, "You're Colonel Delborough?"
Del bit his tongue against an impulse to respond, "You're Miss Duncannon?" Just one look, and his vision of a biddable young miss had evaporated; the lady was in her late twenties if she was a day.
And given the vision filling his eyes, why she was still a miss was beyond his comprehension.
She was...lush was the word that sprang to his mind. Taller
than the average, she was built on stately, even queenly lines,
ripely curvaceous in all the right places. Even from across
the room, he could tell her eyes were green; large, faintly
slanting up at the outer corners, they were vibrantly alive,
awake and aware, alert to all that went on around her.
Her features were elegant, refined, her lips full and ripe, elementally tempting, but the firmness of her chin suggested determination, backbone and a forthrightness beyond the norm.
Duly noting that last, he bowed. "Indeed - Colonel Derek Delborough." Sadly, not at your service. Quashing the wayward thought, he smoothly continued, "I believe your parents made some arrangement with my aunts for me to act as escort on your journey north. Sadly, that's not possible - I have business to attend to before I can return to Humberside."
Deliah Duncannon blinked, with an effort dragged her senses from their preoccupation with shoulders and a wide chest which should by all rights have been encased in a uniform, replayed his words, then abruptly shook her head. "No."
Moving further into the room, she set her boxes and bags on the table, distractedly wondering whether a uniform would have increased his impact, or lessened it. There was something anomalous in his appearance, as if the elegant civilian garb was a disguise. If the intention had been to screen his innately vigorous, even dangerous physique, the ploy had failed miserably.
Freeing her hands, she reached up to extract the long pin securing her hat. "I'm afraid, Colonel Delborough, that I must insist. I've been waiting for the better part of a week for you to arrive, and I really cannot journey on without a suitable escort." Setting her hat on the table, she swung to face the recalcitrant ex-colonel - significantly younger and immeasurably more virile than she'd envisioned him. Than she'd been led to expect. "It's quite unthinkable."
Regardless of his age, his virility, or his propensity to argue, for her, it was, but the last thing she intended to do was explain.
His lips - mobile and distractingly masculine - firmed. "Miss Duncannon -"
"I expect you're imagining that it will simply be a matter of bundling me into a carriage with my maid and household, and pointing north." Pausing in the act of removing her leather gloves, she glanced at him, and caught a telltale twist of those disturbing lips; that had, indeed, been precisely what he'd planned. "I have to inform you that that's very definitely not the case."
Dropping her gloves on the table behind her, she lifted her chin and faced him squarely - staring down her nose as well as she could given he was more than half a head taller than she. "I must insist, sir, that you honor the obligation."
His lips were now a thin line - one she wanted to see relax
and curve into a smile...what was the matter with her? Her
pulse thrummed in her throat, her skin prickled with unexpected
awareness, and he was still a good six feet away.
"Miss Duncannon, while regretably my aunts overstepped their authority in seeking to oblige a neighbor, I would, in normal circumstances, do all in my power to, as you phrase it, honor the commitment they made. However, in this instance, it is entirely -"
"Colonel Delborough." She hauled her gaze from his lips, for the first time met his gaze directly, deliberately locking her eyes on his. "Permit me to inform you that there is no reason you could advance, none whatever, that will induce me to excuse you from escorting me north."
His eyes were dark brown, richly hued, unexpectedly intriguing, fringed with the longest, thickest lashes she'd ever seen. Those lashes were the same color as his burnished, lightly waving hair - a sable more black than brown.
"I regret, Miss Duncannon, that that is utterly impossible."
When she set her chin, retreated not an inch, but kept her gaze meshed unwaveringly with his, Del hesitated, then, far more aware than he wished to be of her sinfully sensual mouth, stiffly added, "I'm presently on a mission, one vital to the country, and must see it to its conclusion before I'll be free to indulge my aunts' wishes."
She frowned. "But you've resigned your commission." Her gaze slid to his shoulders, as if confirming the absence of epaulettes.
"My mission is civilian rather than military."
Her finely arched brows rose. Her gaze returning to his face, she considered him for an instant, then, in a deceptively mild - sarcastically challenging - tone, said, "So what do you suggest, sir? That I wait here, at your convenience, until you are free to escort me north?"
"No." He struggled not to clench his teeth; his jaw was already tight. "I would respectfully suggest that, in the circumstances, and at this present season with much less traffic on the highways, it would be perfectly acceptable for you to head north with your maid - and I believe you mentioned a household? As you've already ordered a carriage -"
Her green eyes flashed. "With all due respect, Colonel, you are talking through your hat!" Belligerent, determined, she stepped forward, face tipping up as if she intended to go nose-to-nose with him. "The notion of me travelling north, in this season or any other, with no suitable gentleman arranged and accepted by my parents as escort, is quite simply ineligible. Unacceptable. Absolutely 'not done.'"
She'd come so close a wave of tempting warmth slid over the
front of him, cascading down to heat his groin. So long had
it been since he'd experienced such an explicit reaction he
was, for just an instant, distracted enough to simply stand
and enjoy it, drink it in....
Her gaze abruptly shifted to his left. She was tall enough to see over his shoulder. He saw her focus, saw her gorgeous jade-green eyes widen - then flare.
She seized his lapels and dragged him, hauled him, tumbled him down to the floor.
For one crazed instant, his brain interpreted her actions as lust gone wild - then the reverberating explosion and the tinkle of shattered glass raining down upon them jerked his wits back to reality.
She had never left it. Trapped half beneath him, she wriggled and squirmed to get free, her horrified gaze locked on the shattered pane.
Slamming a mental door on the effect of her curveaceous form bucking beneath him, he gritted his teeth and pushed back to his knees. After a quick glance out of the window at the stunned crowd milling in the darkened street, he got to his feet, and was assisting her to hers when the door slammed open.
Mustaf stood in the doorway, saber in his hand. Cobby stood beside him, a cocked pistol in his. Beyond them towered another Indian, swarthy and tall - Del stiffened instinctively. He started to step across Miss Duncannon, only to have her hand on his arm hold him back.
"I'm quite all right, Kumulay." Her small, warm hand still resting on Del's bicep, she looked up at him. "It wasn't me the man was trying to kill."
Del met her eyes. They were still wide, her pupils dilated, but she was utterly in control.
A hundred thoughts churned through his head. Every instinct screamed "chase," but this time that wasn't his role. He looked back at Cobby, who had lowered his gun. "Get ready to leave immediately."
Cobby nodded. "I'll get the others." He and Mustaf drew back.
The other man - Kumulay - remained in the open doorway, his impassive gaze locked on his mistress.
Del glanced at her. Met the green shards trained on his face.
"You are not leaving without me." Each word was carefully enunciated.
He hesitated, giving his mind one more chance to come up with an alternative, then, jaw set, nodded. "Very well. Be ready to leave within the hour."
BACK TO TOP