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PROLOGUE

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 wide 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 orders from a Leadenhall Street address in London.

     Ominously, none of the orders originated from the crown, its government or the aristocracy.

     These clandestine orders were mandated by a man never seen but whose presence was always felt in India: Mr. Jeffrey Preston Hurlock.

     He smudged entire provinces off the map merely by circling it with a graphite pencil.

     Mr. Hurlock owned 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, tobacco, and slaves were the gods he worshipped at an altar that forever dripped with Indian blood.

     Much like Naraka and its twenty-eight levels of hell, he did not torture her people on his own. With the governing force of twenty-three others, Mr. Hurlock and his financiers 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 prop his massive boots onto a desk of unfathomable influence, and like his uncle before him, rule over every merchant and every resource in India.

     Her 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?”

     Tossing the rosewood musket he held through the door of the open coach, Lieutenant Bradley strode toward her in the darkness but kept his distance. “Kalpita told me.” Shadowed eyes captured hers. “I was worried you would violate the mandate and fall into trouble. Seems I know you quite well. A bit too well.” He thumbed toward an armed coachman now seated in the elevated box of the two horse carriage. “I brought a more reliable driver.”

     That casualness toward her predicament annoyed her. “So you dismissed my driver?”

     “Yours didn’t know the way.” He pointed. “You are the only reason I’m still in Calcutta. I should have been gone by now, instead I am here serving you.” He scrubbed his head and swung away. “Get in 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 for more than a breath and he has not moved once. What did you do?”

     He snorted. “What did I do?” he echoed. “He was aiming a baton at your head and treating you like an animal. 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?”

     He gave her a brittle look. “As always, insults are preferable.” Stepping over the Field Marshal, he glanced back at her in exasperation through the expanse of shadows. “It’s darker than a demon’s left pocket out here. What were you thinking going against a government mandate? What would have happened had I not arrived?”

     It was back to that brotherly ‘Thou Shalt Not’ and being lectured. “I would have managed.”

     “Of course you would have. It’s why we are all congregated on this fine starry night. To celebrate the way you manage.” 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. And so He did, and here I stand still asking myself why.” With the grit of teeth, he tied the sash into place over the Field Marshal’s eyes. “He will remain shackled long enough for you to leave India. Kalpita and I have an agreement.”

     She gasped. “Are you attempting to oversee her demise?”

     He glared. “Begging your vast pardon, but was I to prance into the crown’s office for you? I had little time and given the arrangement he had with Ridley, his intent was to send you into a mud walled prison. A prison. A real one.”

     She glared back. “Oi, and now we gave him a reason to do it. When he regains consciousness he will no doubt think that I had arranged for this!”

     “May the good Lord keep me sane. I come to your rescue and you blame me for it?”

     “Haan. Assaulting people until they bleed is not a rescue. That 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 smug hand toward him. “Not dead."

     She tapped at her forehead to emphasize the point he seemed to be missing. “Unlike you, I am an Indian woman holding three criminal registries. Three. I do not need him and the entire British government coming after me!”

     He rolled his eyes. “This is hardly an act of treason. One conversation with my uncle and this turns into crown paperwork no one will ever look at.” 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 bound, fastened and strapped onto his leather belt. With the tug of embroidered military cuffs, he hit their chests one by one. “Ensure his blindfold remains in place lest he identify any of you. Take the horses on the east portion of the building and deliver him to Kalpita at once. 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.” Bradley pointed at the alley. “You and I both know Dunning is irreparably in love with Kalpita and has been for months. 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 all hopelessly stupid.”

     “Women aren’t too far behind, either.” 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. “Trouble certainly gets you off the feather tick every morning. Aren’t you exhausted? I know I am and we haven’t even left the province.”

     Her annoyance increased knowing Bradley appeared to be inebriated. As if he wasn’t conceited enough whilst sober. It explained why he was using too many words. “How much brandy have you had? I can smell it with my feet.”

     “I’m not soused.”

     “No. Merely well-lubricated. I thought drinking was a sin.”

     He leaned in and double-dabbed her nose. “Not entirely. ‘Drink no longer water, but a chalice of wine for thy stomach's sake and thine infirmities’. You see, cherub, I have a variety of infirmities.  You being one of them.”

     It was going to be a long night. “Having an impaired mind helps no one.”

     “All I ever do is yank you out of roguery, yet somehow IIIII’m the one being reprimanded for having three swigs of brandy. My flask still has a lot of brandy.” Unfastening his military coat, he flicked the red fabric open and leaned in close, tugging out well-folded parchments. “As it stands, no port officer or a captain of any ship will violate the mandate without a seal and a signature from the Governor General. Fortunately for you, I have an uncle. Which means if you want to leave India, you will need 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. Holding her gaze, he fastened each and every button from chin to chest. “How many hours have we spent in the Council Room convincing each other not to be stupid? How many? Yet here you are being exactly that: stupid. 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.”

     Flushing, he choked on a startled laugh. “I wasn’t—”

     “You were. ‘Name your price, cherub, and I will name mine. Be forewarned, it is hefty’.”

     He heaved out a breath. Glancing up toward the heavens as if looking for eternal guidance, he crossed himself and muttered, “I apologize. The brandy is making me a touch insolent.”

     “A touch?”

     “It’s been a long night.” Disgruntled green eyes met hers from above. “I received a missive from Peter. You and he have business.”

     That sounded exceedingly ominous. She squinted. “What sort of business?”

     He mockingly squinted back. “The private sort. I am being tasked with escorting you to him. It’s why I’m even here. It’s why I’m wrangling you out of trouble. We have to leave.” Wedging open the carriage door, he thudded a fist against the lacquered panel. “The roads out of Calcutta are extremely dangerous. Yet you commissioned an unarmed driver and packed four trunks full of glass vials and indigenous plants.” He snapped a finger at the coach. “Get in before I start quoting the entire bible.”

     This one thought he had a monopoly in virility. Much like her Peter.

     She crossed her arms. “Unless I am told what this business is, I am not being escorted anywhere. I need to get to London. Ridley needs me.”

     “Jemdanee, I don’t have time for this. Get in.”

     “Nahin. I am not yours to position and command.”

     He swung toward her. “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.” He glared. “Do you even know how black diamonds are acquired? By your own people in Golconda. Slaves who oversee everyone’s fortune but their own and use raw fingers to dig past stone. My uncle trades in the hell of those mines. I have seen it with the eyes of my soul given I have repeatedly gone against Company orders and delivered food and bibles to their huts. Why would you support their suffering by wearing their pain? Have you no shame?”

     Her throat tightened, the weight of the ring now whispering of the darkness it represented. “I am certain Ridley did not know.”

     “Given his boasting level of intelligence, I am certain he did.” Wedging a sun-bronzed hand into the chest pocket of his uniform, he locked it into place. “This conversation is about to get even more personal. Might you enter the coach?”

     A warning voice whispered in her head. “I would rather we do this here.”

     He glanced toward the Indian coachman in exasperation. “We have said quite enough. He understands English.”

     “So do I. Consider him my chaperone. What do you want?”

     He sighed. “Peter told me about that rope you had dragged out of his attic to bring with you to India. The one that had decorated your room all of these years. The one you rolled up into your trunk as if it were a leash and you its servant. That isn’t normal.”

     She said nothing.

     His throat worked. “Were you intimate with him?”

     A rush of heat overtook her face. “You certainly get to the root of an oak.”

     A swath of sunlit hair fell across his shadowed brow. “I’m not attempting to be crass. I am speaking to you as someone who is attempting to give you light. I have had my share of wild nights and do not seek to judge you, but it is my everlasting hope you took precautions to protect yourself from his seed given you are here and unwed. Did you take precautions?”

     This one needed a flute if he thought he had any right to know what did or didn’t happen. “If I choose to put butter on a coconut, I will. I am not answering that.”

     He swung away and quickly paced. “Given you refuse to confide in me, I will send a military courier to Peter at once so it reaches him before we do. He should know about your involvement with Ridley.”  

     She grew numb. Peter would never forgive her and their ties were strained enough. She had written too many times, apologizing for her inability to let Ridley go. Peter had responded firmly each time, hinting he would ride in one dark, dark night and deliver her to a convent.

     She had no reason to doubt him. He had broken men’s arms for less. “I cannot him taking over my life and erasing his own. You know how he is. He overacts to everything.”

     “With you, he has to. You are doing irreparable harm if you think you can keep your association with Ridley a secret. I cannot have this attached to my conscious. He is as much of a father to me as he is to you. It’s imperative we be blunt.” He scrubbed his face. “Is there any possibility that you could be pregnant?”

     Her trembling fingers grazed the glinting black diamond that weighed her scarred finger. It was difficult for her to admit that Ridley had spilled into her as a means of controlling her. It riled her. For she deserved more than this. She was more than this. “The possibility is high,” she admitted.

     His hand dropped. He half-nodded and kept nodding as if talking to far more than himself. “Congratulations, cherub. Congratulations for being what I never thought you to be: dim-witted. 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 illegal or not. 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 in. “Peter is going to yank all of my ribs out.”

     She gave him a withering look. “For what? You were not the one to impregnate me.”

     He stared unblinkingly. “God keep me from hammering iron spikes into the unseeing eyes of a man I hope never to meet again. He should have married you. Why didn’t he marry you?”

     She rolled her eyes. “As an Indian woman, I will not be owned by any man. Brown or white. Nor will I be lectured.” 

     He glared. “A lecture wouldn’t begin to erase the path you are on.” He tapped at the coat fabric of his chest, outlining the shape of the bible buried beneath. “‘They who cannot control their passion, let them wed.’ There is a reason for matrimonial laws, Jemdanee. It prevents women from being abandoned when things go wrong.”

     “He has not abandoned me.”

     “Yet here you stand alone.” He glanced solemnly over at the coach and march-trooped, kicking up dirt as if it were her sins. “Traversing long distances with a belly is not advisable. It’s dangerous. 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.”

     His throat worked. “Except common sense.” He held her gaze, his tone anything but brotherly. “Why did Ridley set the mandate? Why would he keep you from leaving India? Answer me or the Field Marshal and the mandate can take you both, because I have plans that don’t involve criminality. I don’t need this. What don’t I know?”

     She almost covered more than her nose knowing she might lose the only alliance she had left: him. But to lie and, in turn, put him in danger would be…unforgivable. “He is not doing anything illegal. A constable was butchered and others will follow if he does not intervene and meet the demands of this felon. That is why he set the mandate and left for London alone. He fears for me. He fears for everyone. His profession is incredibly malignant,” she managed. “People die.”

     He angled in and then swung away and swung back toward her. “For the love of every cloud in the sky, why didn’t you tell me?!”

    “I just did.”

     He stepped in close. Using a rigid finger against the chain hidden beneath his high collar, he flicked out a gold cross hanging on it and grabbed her hand, startling her. Setting his forehead down to hers, he clasped the cross into her fingers and kissed her knuckles hard, momentarily closing his eyes. “Guide us, O Lord. Guide us through this time of peril and give her the safe haven of a path knowing she has yet to know her true name. Much like I was once lost, she is lost, too. Find her.”

     She tried not to be insulted.

     Releasing her hand and the cross, he opened his eyes as if newly enlightened and tucked his chain away into his embroidered collar. “There are two types of soldiers that step out in the field, cherub. Ones willing to die for what they believe in and ones who die because they have nothing to believe in. Ridley is a dangerous combination of both due to his profession and the criminals he tangles with. It invites peril outside of his control. Why do you think Peter was always so set against your involvement with him? By mere association, you could die.”

     She tried forcing her emotions into order knowing it. “I am not afraid of death.”

     “You aren’t going to London. It’s too dangerous. I am taking you to Peter.”

     She inhaled sharply. “I am not a brown goat in need of a fence.”

     “Don’t use that tone after I kissed the cross in your name.” His face remained unwilling to compromise. “I didn’t get you into this mess. He did. If you have any complaints, take them all to Peter and keep my name out of it.”

     She clenched her jaw in an attempt to eradicate the helplessness she felt. He was her last hope of getting to London. Her only hope, really. He also held the…overriding paperwork for the mandate. She grabbed him, jerking him close, startling him. “Be the devil I know you to be and cooperate. What do you want in return for the papers in your coat? Another kiss? A full night?”

     He stiffened and leaned far back, double tapping 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. “Do you not understand that countless lives depend on me getting to London?!”

     He let out a boisterous laugh that echoed all around them and into the night. “Who do you think you are? The battalion?” He forcefully removed her hands from his coat, one by one. “This is the sort of ungodly influence Ridley has on you. This. Thinking you can take on me and the world with a stick.”

     It appeared Bradley was more of a saint than she realized.

     Flopping her hands away, she groaned at her inability to even use her charms. She had none. “I need more than a stick, Bradley. I need a guarantee that he will live and cannot do this on my own. Even Scotland Yard is struggling to contain this loon. It will require a vast power of almost equal measure to the gods One that…” She paused, blinking rapidly and swung toward him. Mr. Hurlock. “How close are you to your uncle?”

     His stoic expression prolonged the moment. “Avert those eyes and any expectations. The association I share with my uncle is not for sale.”

     She almost grabbed him. “If it means saving lives, make it for sale. This Hurlock of yours could easily place disguised sentinels employed by the Company throughout all of London. Think of the unending good the Company could finally bring. Please. I am begging you to help Ridley. Help him. Please.”

     He searched her face for a blazing moment. “You are an illusion to your own delusion if you think I would ever help Ridley. I would sooner put a nail through each hand.”

     A high-powered alliance with the East Indian Trading Company would change everything.

     It would save Ridley’s life. The one he was so intent on tossing.

     It would protect everyone in his circle. His mother. Vidocq. Even his former wife.

     It would also…rip apart everything she and Ridley had ever shared.

     He would hate her.

     She would become what his first wife was to him: dead.

     Did it matter if he and others lived? No. It didn’t.

     Her eyes burned embracing what had to be. “The level of power the East India Company yields will erase the dangers involved. All of their main offices are in London. That is a remarkable grand footing Ridley could use. Help Ridley by the brute authority of the East Indian Trading Company and I will give you my allegiance.”

     His mood darkening, he angled in. “God keep me from listening to anymore of this. One doesn’t call upon favors of an unregulated private company without losing one’s morality and I have served my uncle long enough. No. I am not doing this.”

     She swallowed. What did she fear most?

     Losing Ridley. Yet he was lost to her either way.

     It was his life or hers.

     Quaking out a soul centering breath, she hoped her own gods would forgive her for loving a man too much. “Help Ridley and I will convert to Christianity and marry you.”

     His startled gaze met hers. “What?”

     Saying it hurt. It hurt. For she was about to erase her entire life.

     All of it. For love. Her misery was so acute it was a physical pain. “If I am with child, I ask that you have enough kindness to let him hold that child at least once.” Attempting to dig deep enough in his essence to make him know he was hurting all of them, she held his gaze. “I will marry you. In return, you will help Ridley.”

     His expressive face wavered. “You are not in your right mind.”

    The ground tremored.

    They paused, holding each other’s gaze and glanced toward the dirt.

     

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