Calcutta, India - 1833
Early evening outside the expansive gates of the Government House
No one knew more than she that Lieutenant Rufus Adam Bradley held formidable connections. Ones far greater than those found in the enclosed halls of parliament. Ones that had commenced four generations earlier when a gold-fisting capital of £72,000 was chinked onto an Elizabethan desk, marking that lacquered surface and the world.
Every summer, as the sun parched the land and cracked the dirt into pieces, these ‘connections’ journeyed into India merely to see him.
In the guise of three expressionless men, they arrived into port with the tug of Tilbury hats and stalked through the grime-scorched streets of Calcutta. With breech-loading rifles attached to their backs and dispatch cases that never left their sight, they followed Lieutenant Bradley into his bureaucratic office before vanishing once again in a shroud of somnolent detachment.
They delivered highly classified ledgers from a Leadenhall Street address in London.
Ominously, none of them originated from the Crown, its government or the aristocracy.
These clandestine ledgers were accounted, marked and paged through by an enigmatic man never seen but whose presence was always felt in India: Mr. Preston Jeffrey Hurlock.
A man whom she despised due to his inability to use his unending power for good. He moved entire provinces merely by circling it with a graphite pencil.
Mr. Hurlock oversaw plenary sections of India as if the land were his mawa cake and its people the brown crumbs that had fallen onto the crockery. Opium, tea, textiles, citrus, saltpetre, indigo and tobacco were the gods he worshipped on an altar carved from bullion.
Much like Naraka and its twenty-eight levels of hell, he did not worship those gods alone. With the governing force of twenty-three other financiers, Mr. Hurlock and those men became known to Europe as ‘the Eminent Twenty-Four’ due to how remarkably efficient they were in governing all of India out of a posh office in London only four windows wide. They were the cabinet bodies and merchant directors of the East India Trading Company and controlled over two hundred million of her people with a paid staff of only—
One hundred and fifty nine lawyers and clerks.
That, of course, did not include their privatized army of two hundred and sixty thousand men.
They were their own government.
What astounded Jemdanee Kumar far more than discovering twenty-four white men controlled everything was knowing Mr. Hurlock was…Bradley’s uncle. And given Mr. Hurlock had never married or had children of his own, Bradley was more than a nephew.
It was whispered he was the future of the East India Trading Company.
If true, he would one day rule over every merchant and every resource in India. He was everything no Indian woman could ever embrace even as a friend.
She tried to keep her voice civil. “How did you even know I was leaving Calcutta?”
Tossing the rosewood musket to the coachman, Lieutenant Bradley strode toward her in the darkness but kept his distance. “I know people.” Shadowed eyes captured hers. “I am also well acquainted with how a misfit thinks for I was a rather good one myself.” He thumbed toward an armed coachman that was now seated in the elevated box of the two-horse carriage behind him. “I brought a more reliable driver and added a few trunks of my own.”
That casualness toward her predicament was annoying. “So you dismissed my driver?”
“Yours didn’t know the way.” He exaggerated a bow and swung away. “Up and into the coach.”
Jemdanee paused, the dim light of the coach lantern illuminated the sprawled body of the Field Marshal whose hands were now restrained with iron manacles, his mustache and cheek mashed into the dirt. Blood trickled down that matted dark hair, tracing his temple and chin.
Her gaze snapped to Bradley. “Is he even breathing?”
“I didn’t hit him that hard.”
“Dhatt. We have been standing here beyond a breath and he has not moved once. What did you do?”
He snorted. “What did I do? He was aiming a baton at your head. What was I to do? Kiss him?”
She lowered her chin in an effort to remain calm. “You certainly had no qualms in kissing me against my will. Why not him, too?”
“As always, insults are preferable.” Stepping over the Field Marshal, he glanced back at her in exasperation through the shadows. “It’s darker than a demon’s left pocket out here. What were you thinking going off into the night on your own?”
It was back to that brotherly ‘Thou Shalt Not’ and being lectured. “I would have managed. I always do. I have to.”
“Yet you didn’t.” He grudgingly tugged out a tribunal sash from his belt and knelt. “God parted the evening sky and upon seeing you in yet another muddle said…I will send over Rufus. I will test his faith as a man.” With the grit of teeth, he tied the sash into place over the Field Marshal’s eyes. “He works for the Crown, not the Company, so I had to get creative. Kalpita and I have an agreement courtesy of a hundred pounds. In the morning, he will think he drank too much.”
“If you think he is that stupid, you will have us all arrested.”
“That was already in the dice. He was going to send you to prison.”
“Oi, and now we gave him a reason. Given you are so creative.”
“Begging your vast pardon, but was I to prance into the Crown’s office for you and fill out paperwork? That would have taken a month and a half. Consider the knock to his head a legal stamp ordained by the East India Trading Company.”
“Assaulting people until they bleed is not a legal courtesy. This is an act of violence and for all we know he is now dead.”
The Field Marshal groaned, attempting to move against the iron shackles, before fading back into unconsciousness on the dirt.
Rising, Bradley swept a hand toward him. “Not dead.”
She tapped at her forehead to emphasize the point he was missing. “Unlike you, I am an Indian woman holding three criminal registries. Three. I do not need him and the British government coming after me!”
He rolled his eyes. “No one is coming after you.” Glancing down the adjoining street, he let out a whistle through two fingers.
Several cadets jogged forth from the shadows and lined up shoulder to shoulder, startling her.
One of them tossed a sheathed saber to Bradley, which he fastened onto his leather belt. Wrapping two long strips of leather around his hands that he then tied at each wrist of his embroidered military cuffs, he turned and hit their chests one by one. “Ensure his blindfold remains in place lest he identify any of you. Take the horses on the east end and deliver him to Kalpita. Your service is appreciated and you are dismissed. Move!”
All four cadets, including Dunning who avoided her gaze, scrambled over and lifted the Field Marshal with the rattle of iron shackles. Their booted feet kicked up plumes of dirt as they disappeared into an alley.
She swung toward Bradley. “Why not involve all of Calcutta?”
“I did.” He pointed at the alley, the leather on his hand creaking. “You and I both know Dunning is irreparably in love with Kalpita. She nuzzled his nose, I gave the orders and it was done. Are you going to blame me for that?”
That lanky, freckled fool. “Shiva, you men are hopelessly stupid.”
“Women aren’t too far behind, either.”
She eyed the leather strips binding his hands. “Is there a reason you mummified yourself?”
“Knowing you, I’m going to need it.” Blocking her view of the paraffin-lit torches lining the wrought iron gate, he towered closer with the scuff of Hessian boots against dirt, erasing the fresh, evening air with— nose-stinging apple brandy. “The leather protects my hands during a brawl and we aren’t out of India yet. If all of this vigor appeals to you, let me know.” He flexed.
It was going to be a long night. “How much brandy have you had? I can smell it with my feet.”
He lowered his chin. “Having an impaired mind helps no one and the good book is clear in this: ‘Drink no longer water, but a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine infirmities’. It says a little. Not a lot. I had a little on each hour.”
“Which is a lot.”
“I’m not soused.” Unfastening his military coat, he flamboyantly flicked the red fabric open and leaned in close, tugging out well-folded parchments he smacked. “As it stands, no port officer or the captain of any ship will violate the mandate without a signature from the Governor General. Fortunately for you, I have an uncle. Which means…you will be in need of this.” He rattled the folded parchments at her nose.
She tried to grab it.
He snapped it up over her head and tucked it back inside his coat. “You, cherub, are worse than I was at fifteen. Why in the guard of Uriel didn’t you come to me for help?”
She hated knowing she was at this paragon’s mercy. “Why would I turn to a self-entitled man who had forcibly kissed me and is now asking me for ‘compensation’? I am not letting your lower half penetrate mine.”
He coughed past a startled laugh. “I wasn’t—”
“You were. ‘Name your price, cherub, and I will name mine. Be forewarned, it is hefty’.”
Glancing up toward the heavens as if looking for eternal guidance, he crossed himself with the creak of leather and muttered, “I apologize. The brandy is making me a touch insolent.”
“I’m not soused. Merely elated to be rid of you.” Disgruntled green eyes met hers from above. “I received a missive through military courier from Peter last night. We have to leave. You and he have business.”
That sounded exceedingly ominous. “Business? What sort of business?”
“The private sort. It’s why I’m wrangling you out of trouble. I’m being tasked to escort you out of India.” Wedging open the carriage door, he thudded a hand against the lacquered panel. “The roads out of Calcutta are exceedingly dangerous, especially at night, yet you commissioned an unarmed driver and only packed four behemoth trunks full of saris, glass vials and indigenous plants.” He snapped a finger at the coach. “Be quick to enter lest I quote the bible from Psalm to Revelation.”
Much like Peter, this one thought the bible had the final say.
She crossed her arms. “Unless I am told what this business is, I am not being escorted anywhere. Peter is in Turkey and I have to get to London. Ridley is in a vile mess and needs me.”
“Cherub, I adore you, but you aren’t going to Satan. Now get in.”
“Do not use that brawny tone with me. I am not yours to position and command.”
“No. Of course not. You are his to position and command.” He flicked the ring on her fourth finger. “Its extravagance ought to shame you. Do you even know how black diamonds are acquired? By your own people in Golconda. Slaves who oversee everyone’s fortune but their own. Even my uncle refuses to trade with merchants who use a slave to produce their commodity.”
Her throat tightened, the weight of the ring now whispering of the darkness it represented. “I am quite certain Ridley did not know.”
“Given his boasting level of intelligence, I am quite certain he did. Peter informed me about that rope you had dragged out of that man’s attic and brought to India. The one that had decorated your room for three years and is now in a trunk waiting to be used by you like a stocking. That isn’t normal and this conversation is about to get even more awkward. Might you enter the coach?”
“I would rather we do this here.”
He glanced toward the Indian coachman peering down at them. “I would rather we not.”
“Consider him a chaperone.”
“God is our chaperone.”
“Then does it matter where it is said?”
He shifted for boot to boot. “I don’t want to deliver you to Peter without knowing whether I ought to be wearing full armor.” His throat worked. “Were you intimate with Ridley?”
She almost flicked his nose. “You certainly get to the root of an oak. How is that any of your business?”
“I’m not attempting to be crass. I have had my share of wild nights and do not seek to judge you, but it is my everlasting hope that you took precautions given the long journey ahead.” He eyed her. “Did you take precautions?”
This one was bold. “I am not answering that.”
A ragged breath escaped him. “You have to tell Peter that you and Ridley are involved.” He paced fast. “I’m not about to be held accountable for your inability to control yourself. It’s time Peter knows. I can’t keep lying for you.”
She grew numb. Peter would never forgive her for kneeling to Ridley and their ties were strained enough. Peter had more than hinted in every letter that if she didn’t cease the association, he would ride in one dark, dark night and eliminate Ridley by way of a scalpel, much like the surgeon that he was.
She had no reason to doubt him. He had broken men’s arms for less. “I cannot have Peter taking over my life and erasing his own. You know how he is. He overacts to everything.”
He snorted. “With you, he has to. You have made it very clear that you don’t want me in your life. And I’m not asking to be in it, in fact, this is me asking not to get dragged into it, but traversing long distances with a belly across land and sea is going to increase your risk of death by a lot. Is there any possibility that you could be pregnant or that you are?”
Her trembling fingers grazed the glinting black diamond that weighed her scarred finger. It was difficult to admit that Ridley had spilled into her as a means of controlling her. It riled her. “The possibility is high,” she admitted. “I am expecting my menses in a few days and will know then.”
His leather bound hand dropped. “You were raised by a military physician and surrounded by more men than I govern. How could you not understand the mitigating importance of abstinence? Or, at best, the importance of contraceptives, be they legal in their means or not.” He glared. “Even I know you have a plant for that! Why didn’t you use it?”
She winced feeling as if her brother was now also a father and a grandfather in one. “Silphium is not very effective.”
His demeanor fracturing, Bradley’s shoulders slumped. He fumbled to remove a silver flask from his lower coat pocket, swigged from it and shoved it back into his pocket. “Peter is going to yank every last one of my ribs out and make furniture out of it.”
She gave him a withering look. “How are you responsible for my lack of virginity?”
“Let them wed, let them wed, if they ever go to a bed. Even I was taught that much by my uncle at fifteen. Mind you, I never listened, but it’s vastly different for a woman. The belly stays with her for life. Ridley should have married you. He should have— Why didn’t he marry you?!”
Jemdanee masked her own turmoil knowing she would always play second to Ridley’s truest love: his profession. “I denied him. I had to. I cannot be owned by a man who thinks death is a better lover than I.”
Tapping at the coat fabric of his chest, he outlined the shape of a bible buried beneath. “There is a reason for matrimonial laws, cherub. Sin and the Lord’s will aside, it prevents women like you from being abandoned when things go wrong.”
“He has not abandoned me.”
“Yet here you stand alone.” He grimaced and glanced solemnly at the coach and down the street. “I have no idea what to do.” Flopping arms down, he trooped, kicking up clouds of dirt. “Attempting to traverse any distance with you bundling a belly will be nothing short of lunacy. I can’t— You are going to require a vast amount of medical attention!”
One would think she had suffered an amputation. “Salla. I am fully capable of being my own physician given the amount of medical herbs in my trunk. Alchemilla and opopane-wort will see me through anything.”
He gave her a withering look. “Except common sense. What mess are you in? Why would Beelzebub keep you from leaving India and toss off to London himself? It had better not involve criminality. Because I don’t need this. What don’t I know? Is it illegal?”
She almost covered her nose. “Ridley is not doing anything illegal.” Yet. “A constable was butchered and others might follow if he does not intervene and meet the demands of this felon who seeks an audience with Ridley. That is why Ridley set the mandate to keep me from leaving India. Given the threats that are now being made against everyone in his circle, he fears for me. His profession is incredibly malignant,” she managed. “People die.”
“And you clearly want to be next.” Hooking the chain hidden beneath his high collar with a finger, he flicked out the Bishop’s cross hanging from it, the one she had worn while working in the Government House. “Let us pray for clarity and the dignity that has been lost. Give me your hand.” He grabbed her hand and clasping the cross into his fingers, momentarily closing his eyes. He bowed his head.
She awkwardly waited for his silent prayer to be over.
Releasing her, he opened his eyes as if newly enlightened and tucked the cross and chain away into his embroidered collar. “Given your safety is at stake, I’m taking you to Peter.”
She inhaled sharply. “I am not a brown goat in need of a fence.”
“Better a fence than a casket. Which means you are going to go where I tell you go or I will take that rope you love so much and-and…tie you to the seat with it!”
It was time to get aggressive.
Grabbing the lapels of his military uniform, she jerked him close, startling him. “What do you want in return for the papers in your coat? Another kiss or maybe even a compliment?!”
He double tapped at her hands to release him. “‘And ye shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.’”
This one was trying to rip the wings off his back and stuff them so far down her constricted throat, her own ancestors would feel it. She rattled him. “Be the devil I know you to be and cooperate! Ridley’s life depends on me—”
A boisterous, overly manly laugh echoed all around them and rolled into the night through the buildings and back. “Ridley’s life depends on me, says she who has no sword.” He removed her hands from his coat, one by one. “Who do you think you are? The battalion? Off with you.”
Flopping her hands away, she groaned at her inability to even use her charm. She had none. “I am in want of exactly that: a battalion. I need a guarantee that Ridley will live and cannot do this on my own. Even Scotland Yard is struggling to contain this loon. It would require a vast stronghold and power equal to that of the gods. One that…” She double blinked and swung toward him. The East India Trading Company. Hurlock. Mr. Hurlock. “How close are you to your uncle?”
His stoic expression prolonged the moment. “So close that, even now, I can hear him exhaling through both nostrils and blaming me for this.”
She pointed, her words coming faster than thoughts. “The level of power the Company possesses will erase the danger of Ridley finding himself alone on the street throughout his investigation. Their main offices are in London and they employ more highly trained sentinels than the Crown. They could offer him the street by street protection he will need. Is it possible to convince your uncle to assist Ridley? Could he provide Ridley with his own sentinels?”
He swiped his neck. “I have no idea. Why not convince him yourself?”
She angled in. “Are you saying I could…speak to him? Would he entertain it?”
“Yes, of course. My uncle loves to be entertained.”
This one was putting a feather up her rear. “Are you at all being serious?”
“I take my uncle very seriously.”
“Bradley, enough! Would he assist?”
He lingered. “I doubt it. You seem to have no real understanding of how the Company even works. Most of the sentinels you speak to are stationed here in India. Not there.”
“How many are in London?”
“A sliver. There is a military academy the Company oversees in Addiscombe outside of London, but it hosts only two hundred men.”
Her lips parted. “Two hundred is a grand footing. Those men could be placed throughout all of London and—” She perked. “You and Ridley could lead them against this felon. After you and he shake hands. Which you both will. I will not tolerate this prideful male rivalry. It has to be settled.”
Glancing upward as if asking for divine patience, he leveled her with a stare. “I know when to take the side door of a coach careening off a cliff. I’m not getting involved in this.”
“Please.” She softened her voice knowing if anyone could help, he could. “Given this felon’s intent, Ridley will be in need of physical protection due to his impaired leg. He needs a stronghold outside of Scotland Yard who has no control over this murderous loon. I am asking you to be a friend. Help him. Please.”
“No.” He gestured toward the open door of the coach. “Rear in. We have a schedule to keep.”
A high-powered alliance with the East Indian Trading Company would change everything.
She touched his arm. “You once said to me that if Ridley’s path brought me to a wall, you would be there to guide me away from it. I am asking you to be true to that promise. Guide me away from this wall.”
He stiffened as though she had struck him. “That isn’t fair. I only said that to say it and I have an obligation. I can’t take sides in this.”
“I am asking for you to help.”
“What part of ‘no’ did you not understand? No is no. Not ‘yes’. No.”
She glared and shove-thudded his chest. “Help him!”
Towering, he shoved her back hard.
He glared. “Don’t ever thud me in the chest again, you little snot of a bully. Do you think I live to please the one who has repeatedly denied me everything, including a future? To the hills with you and that. I would sooner invoke all of hell and a red eyed demon.”
The ground tremored.
They paused, holding each other’s gaze and glanced toward the dirt.