There were times when Lady Frederick Staines, nee Miss Penelope Deveraux, deeply regretted her lack of a portable rack and thumbscrews.
Now was one of them. Rain drummed against the roof of the carriage like a set of impatient fingers. Penelope knew just how it felt.
“You spoke to Lord Wellesley, didn’t you?” she asked her husband, as though her husband’s interview with the Governor General of India were one of complete indifference to her and nothing at all to do with the way she was expected to spend the next year of her life.
Penelope was learning to hate that shrug. It was a shrug amply indicative of her place in the world, somewhere just about on a level with a sofa cushion, convenient to lean against but unworthy of conversational effort.
That hadn’t been the case eight months ago.
Eight months ago they hadn’t been married. Eight months ago Freddy had still been trying to get her out of the ballroom into an alcove, a balcony, a bedroom, whichever enclosed space could best suit the purpose of seduction. It was a fitting enough commentary on the rake’s progress, from silver-tongued seducer to indifferent spouse in the space of less than a year.
Not that Freddy had ever been all that silver-tongued. Nor, to be fair, had he done all the seducing.
How was she to have known that a bit of canoodling would land them both in India?
Outside, rain pounded against the roof of the carriage, not the gentle tippety tap of an English drizzle, but the full-out deluge of an Oriental monsoon. They had sailed up the Hooghly into Calcutta that morning after five endless months on a creaking, pitching vessel, replacing water beneath them with water all around them, rain crashing against the esplanade, grinding the carefully planted English flowers that lined the sides into the muck, all but obscuring the conveyance that had been sent for them by the Governor General himself, with its attendant clutter of soaked and chattering servants, proffering umbrellas, squabbling over luggage, pulling and propelling them into a very large, very heavy carriage.
If she had thought about it at all, Penelope would have expected Calcutta to be sunny.
But then, she hadn’t given it much thought, not any of it. It had all happened too quickly for thought, ruined in January, married in February, on a boat to the tropics by March. The future had seemed unimportant compared to the exigencies of the present. Penelope had been too busy brazening it out to wonder about little things like where they were to go and how they were to live. India was away and that was enough. Away from her mother’s shrill reproaches (If you had to get yourself compromised, couldn’t you at least have picked an older son?); Charlotte’s wide-eyed concern; Henrietta’s clumsy attempts to get her to talk about it, as though talking would make the least bit of difference to the reality of it all. Ruined was ruined was ruined, so what was the point of compounding it by discussing it?
There was even, if she was being honest, a certain grim pleasure to it, to having put paid to her mother’s matrimonial scheming and poked a finger in the eye of every carping old matron who had ever called her fast. Ha! Let them see how fast she could be. All things considered, she had got out of it rather lightly. Freddy might be selfish, but he was seldom cruel. He didn’t have crossed eyes or a hunchback (unlike that earl her mother had been throwing at her). He wasn’t violent in his cups, he might be a dreadful cardplayer but he had more than enough blunt to cover his losses, and he possessed a reasonable proficiency in those amorous activities that had propelled them into matrimony.
Freddy was, however, still sulky about having been roped into wedlock. It wasn’t the being married he seemed to mind—as he had said, with a shrug, when he tossed her a betrothal ring, one had to get married sooner or later and it might as well be to a stunner—as the loss of face among his cronies at being forced into it. He tended to forget his displeasure in the bedroom, but it surfaced in a dozen other minor ways.
Including deliberately failing to tell her anything at all about his interview with Lord Wellesley.
“Well?” demanded Penelope. “Where are we to go?”
Freddy engaged in a lengthy readjustment of his neck cloth. Even with his high shirt points beginning to droop in the heat and his face flushed with the Governor General’s best Madeira, he was still a strapping specimen of aristocratic pulchritude, the product of generations of breeding, polishing, and grooming from the burnished dark blond of his hair to the perfectly honed contours of his face. Penelope could picture him pinned up in a naturalist’s cupboard, a perfect example of Homo aristocraticus.
“Hyderabad,” he said at last.
“Hyderawhere?” It sounded like a sneeze.
“Hyderabad,” repeated Freddy, in that upper-class drawl that turned boredom into a form of art. “It’s in the Deccan.”
That might have helped had she had the slightest notion of where—or what—the Deccan was.
In retrospect, it might have been wiser to have spent some time aboard ship learning about the country that was to be her home for the next year, rather than poking about in the rigging and flirting with the decidedly middle-aged Mr. Buntington in the hope of readjusting Freddy’s attention from the card table. The upshot of it all was that she had learned more than she ever wanted to know about the indigo trade and Freddy had lost five hundred pounds by the time they reached the Cape of Good Hope.
“And what are we to do there?” she asked, in tones of exaggerated patience.
“I,” said Freddy, idly stretching his shoulders within the confines of the tight cut of his coat, “am to be Special Envoy to the Court of Hyderabad.”
And what of me? Penelope wanted to ask. But she already knew the answer to that. She was to be toted along like so much unwanted baggage, expected to bow to his every whim in atonement for an act that was as much his doing as hers. An ungrateful baggage, her mother had called her, tossing up to her all the benefits that had been showered upon her, the lessons, the dresses, the multitude of golden guineas that had been expended upon her launch into Society.
It didn’t matter that Penelope would have preferred to have run tame in Norfolk, riding the wildest of her father’s horses and terrifying the local foxes. She was, she had been told, to be grateful for the lessons, the dresses, the Season, just as she was to be grateful that Freddy had condescended to marry her, even if she knew that his acquiescence had been bought and bullied out of him by the considerable wealth and influence of the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale.
The thought of the Dowager brought a pinched feeling to Penelope’s chest, as though her corset strings were tied too tight. Penelope elbowed it aside. There was no point in being homesick for the Dowager or Lady Uppington or Henrietta or Charlotte. They would all have forgotten about her within the month. Oh, they would write, letters that would be six months out of date by the time they arrived, but they had their own families, their own concerns, of which Penelope was, at best, on the very periphery.
That left only Freddy.
“What, no residency of your own?” goaded Penelope. “Only a little envoy-ship?”
That got his attention. Freddy’s ego, Penelope had learned after their abrupt engagement, was a remarkably tender thing, sublimely susceptible to poking.
Freddy looked down his nose at her. It might not be quite a Norman nose, but Penelope was sure it was at least Plantagenet. “Wellesley had a special assignment for me, one only I could accomplish.”
“Bon vivant?” suggested Penelope sweetly. “Or official loser at cards?”
Freddy scrubbed a hand through his guinea gold hair. “I had a run of bad luck,” he said irritably. “It happens to everyone.”
“Mmm-hmm,” purred Penelope. “To some more frequently than others.”
“Wellesley needs me in Hyderabad,” Freddy said stiffly. “I’m to be his eyes and ears.”
Penelope made a show of playing with the edge of her fan. “Hasn’t he a set of his own?”
“Intelligence,” Freddy corrected. “I’m to gather intelligence for him.”
Penelope broke into laughter at the absurdity of Freddy playing spy in a native palace. He would stand out like a Norman knight in Saladin’s court. “A fine pair of ears you’ll make when you can’t even speak the language. Unless the inhabitants choose to express themselves in mime.”
“The inhabitants?” Freddy wrinkled his brow. “Oh, you mean the natives. Wouldn’t bother with them. It’s James Kirkpatrick the Governor General wants me to keep an eye on. The Resident. Wellesley thinks he’s gone soft. Too much time in India, you know.”
“I should think that would be an asset in governing the place.”
Freddy regarded her with all the superiority of his nine months’ stint in a cavalry unit in Seringapatam. From what she had heard, he had spent far more time in the officers’ mess than the countryside. “Hardly. They go batty with the heat and start reading Persian poetry and wearing native dress. Wellesley says there’s even a chance that Kirkpatrick’s turned Mohammedean. It’s a disgrace.”
“I think I should enjoy native dress,” said Penelope, lounging sideways against the carriage seat, like a perpendicular Mme. Recamier. The thin muslin of her dress shifted with her as she moved, molded to her limbs by the damp. “It should allow one more…freedom.”
“Well, I’ll be damned before I go about in a dress,” declared Freddy, but he was looking at her, genuinely looking at her for the first time since he had rolled out of bed that morning.
Letting her eyelids drop provocatively, Penelope delicately ran her tongue around her lips, reveling in the way his gaze sharpened on her.
“You’ll probably be damned anyway,” murmured Penelope, allowing the motion of the carriage to carry her towards him, “so why fuss about the wardrobe?”
With an inarticulate murmur, Freddy caught her hard around the waist. Penelope twined her arms around his neck, pressing closer, despite the wide silver buttons that bored through the muslin of her dress, branding his crest into the flesh above her ribs.
At least they had this, if nothing else. She knew his smell, his taste, the curve of his cheek against the palm of her hand as one knew the gaits of a favorite horse, with a comfort grown of eight months’ constant use. Penelope wiggled closer, running her hands against the by-now-familiar muscles of arm and shoulder, giving herself up to the fleeting counterfeit of intimacy offered by his hand pressed against her back, his lips moving along the curve of her neck.
Until the carriage rocked to a stop and Freddy set her aside with no more concern than if she had been a carriage rug provided for his convenience on the journey. Lust might work to get his attention, but it was remarkably ineffectual at keeping it.
Penelope quickly straightened her bodice as the inevitable crowd of servants descended upon the carriage, yanking open the door, carrying over a portable flight of steps, running forward with blazing torches that too clearly illuminated Penelope’s disarray.
By the time Penelope reached up to fix her hair, Freddy had already swung out of the carriage. He had been trained to do the gentlemanly thing, so he held out a hand in her general direction, but he was already angled towards the portico, the party, the inevitable card room.
“Pen…,” he said impatiently, waggling his hand.
Penelope paused as she was, arms curved above her head, pressing her breasts into prominence. She leaned forward just that extra inch.
“If you will muss my hair…,” she said provocatively.
Freddy was no longer in the mood to play. “If you will behave like a wanton,” he countered, hauling her down from the carriage.
Penelope narrowed her amber eyes. “I’m not a wanton. I’m your wife. Darling.”
Freddy might be lazy, but he had a marksman’s eye. “And who’s responsible for that? Ah, Cleave!” Donning charm like a second skin, he waved to an acquaintance and carried on without pausing to introduce Penelope.
“Whose party is this?” hissed Penelope as she trotted along beside him.
“Begum Johnson—Lord Liverpool’s grandmother,” Freddy tossed in, as though that explained it all. “She’s a Calcutta institution, been here longer than anyone. It’s the first place one comes on arrival.”
“I think it means ‘lady’ in the local lingo,” Freddy said vaguely. “Some sort of form of honorific. It’s what they call her, is all.”
With that elucidating explanation, Penelope found herself swept along in his wake into a vast white-walled mansion decorated with English furniture and English guests as Freddy scattered greetings here and there to acquaintances. The rooms were a colorful blur of brass-buttoned uniforms from every conceivable regiment, embroidered waistcoats straining across the bellies of prosperous merchant traders, large jewels decking the hands and headdresses of the middle-aged ladies in their rich silks. In one room, a set of couples formed rows while a sallow young lady in sweat-damped muslin and a cavalry officer cinched into a woolen jacket danced down the aisle, the familiar tune and figures of the country dance contrasting oddly with the fan sweeping slowly overhead. It did more to displace than dispel the muggy air. Through one archway, Penelope could see bowls of cool beverages sweating beads of water down the sides and iced cakes on porcelain platters. Through another, a room had been set out for cards, in small clusters of four to a table.
Freddy’s eyes lit up at the sight of that last. “You’ll excuse me, won’t you, old thing?” he said, without looking properly at her. “I have a few old scores to settle.”
Without waiting for a response, without introducing her to their hostess or fetching her a beverage or even making sure she had a chair to sit in, he was off. Penelope found herself standing alone in a drawing room that smelled faintly of foreign spices as a tropical monsoon battered against the windows and the chatter of the other guests shrilled against her ears like so many brightly colored parrots. Penelope gathered her pride around her like a mantle, trying to look as though she had always meant to be standing there on her own, as though she weren’t entirely without acquaintance or purpose in a strange drawing room in a strange city, abandoned by her husband in a lamentable breach of manners that he would no doubt justify to himself by the fact that he had never intended to shackle himself to her in the first place.
Unfortunately, the little scene had not gone unobserved. Penelope found herself facing the regard of a man in the bright red uniform of one of the native regiments, spangled with enough gold braid to suggest that he had attained a suitably impressive form of command. He was no longer in the first, or even the second, flush of youth. His hair must once have been as red as her own, but age had speckled it with white, making his face seem even ruddier in contrast. His face was seared by sunshine and laugh lines and liberally spattered with a lifetime of freckles. Beneath wrinkled lids, his pale blue eyes were kindly.
Too kindly. It made Penelope want to shake him.
He strolled forward in an unhurried fashion. Just as Penelope was prepared to stare him down with her best Dowager Duchess of Dovedale glare, he said, “That’s always the way of it with these young men, isn’t it?”
He gave a sympathetic wag of his head, his matter-of-fact tone making it sound as though abandonment by one’s spouse was commonplace, and nothing to be bothered about at all.
“No sooner do they arrive at a party than they’re straight off to the card tables. A blight on society, it is, and a lamentable offense to all the fairer sex.”
Penelope’s stiff posture relaxed. It wasn’t that she cared what people thought—but it was very unpleasant to be left standing by oneself.
“I imagine you are a notable cardplayer yourself, sir,” she riposted.
“Not I,” he averred, pressing one hand to the general vicinity of his heart, but there was a twinkle in his sun-bleached blue eyes that told Penelope he must have been quite a rogue in his youth. It took one to know one, after all. “I have my share of vices, to be sure, but the cards are not among them. At least, not when there’s a lovely lady present.” He swept into a bow that would have done credit to the court of St. James. “Colonel William Reid, at your service, fair lady.”
“I am—,” Penelope began, and stuck. She had been about to say Penelope Deveraux, only she wasn’t anymore. She was Lady Frederick Staines now, her identity subsumed within her husband’s. She wasn’t quite sure who Lady Frederick was, only that it wasn’t really her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she substituted.
Mistaking her hesitation, the Colonel leaned away, holding up both hands in a gesture of contrition. “But not without a proper introduction, I wager. I should beg your pardon for being so bold as to impose myself upon you. After years in a mess, one forgets how to go about.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Penelope hastened to correct him. “It’s just that I’m recently married and I still forget which name I’m meant to call myself. My husband’s name doesn’t feel quite my own.”
A sentiment with which Freddy would heartily agree.
“Married?” The Colonel rearranged his features in a comical look of dismay. “That’s a pity. I meant to introduce you to my Alex.”
“My boy,” the Colonel said proudly. Before Penelope could stop him, he raised his arm to hail a man who stood in conversation with an elderly lady in an exuberant silk turban, his back to them. “Alex! Alex, lad.”
Hearing his father’s exuberant hail, the man turned in a fluid movement that bespoke a swordsman’s grace. “Boy” was the last word Penelope would have used to refer to him; he was tall and lean, with the muscles of a man used to spending long hours in the saddle. Unlike his father, he wore civilian dress, but the indifferently tailored breeches and blue frock coat looked wrong on him, like a costume that didn’t quite fit. His face was as tan as the Colonel’s was ruddy. Had she not been told otherwise, Penelope would have taken him for an Indian, so dark were his hair and eyes. A thin scar showed white against the dark skin of his face, starting just to the left of one eyebrow and disappearing into his hair. He was a handsome man, but not in the way the Colonel must have been handsome once. Where one could picture the Colonel in a kilt and claymore, standing by a distant loch, his son looked as though he belonged in a white robe and Persian trousers with a falcon perched upon his wrist.
Tact had never been Penelope’s strong suit. “Are you quite sure you’re related?”
Far from being offended, the Colonel chuckled comfortably. “It takes many people that way on first meeting—sometimes after, too! My Maria, the boy’s mother, was of Welsh extraction. He gets his coloring from her. It’s been a mixed blessing for him out here,” said the Colonel.
Penelope looked at him quizzically.
“Life is seldom kind to the half-caste,” explained the Colonel, and some of the twinkle seemed to go out of him. “Or those perceived to be so. And especially not in India.”
“I’m half Irish,” Penelope volunteered, by way of solidarity.
She could picture her mother cringing as she said it. Respectably brunette herself, her mother had spent most of her life trying to pretend that she was as English as Wedgwood pottery. Penelope’s hair had been a sore point with her mother, who saw her secret shame revealed every time her daughter’s flaming head hove into view.
“A fine people, the Irish, and bonny fighters,” said the Colonel politely. From his name and his diction, he was Scots, although his accent veered off in odd ways on vowels in a way that was no longer quite any one particular accent at all. “Ah,” he said with pleasure, looking over her shoulder. “Here comes my Alex. He’ll be far more entertaining for you than an old man like me.”
“Nonsense,” said Penelope, smiling up at the darling old Colonel. “I couldn’t have been better entertained.”
His Alex appeared just as the Colonel was tapping a finger against Penelope’s cheek. He looked from his father to her with a resigned expression that suggested that this was not the first time he had come upon his father chatting up an attractive young woman.
But all he said was, “Forgive me. I didn’t like to rush away from the Begum.” Unlike his father’s, his accent was unimpeachably English.
The Colonel laughed his rolling laugh. “She’s in her usual form, is she?”
“Invariably,” he said fondly, with a glance over his shoulder to where the Begum held court in her chair. Recalling himself to his social duties, he looked quizzically at his father.
His father knew exactly what was required. With all the bombast of a born raconteur, he began, “Alex, this charming young lady has been kind enough to sacrifice her own amusement to enliven an old man’s dull existence—”
“Scarcely old,” interjected Penelope, “and never dull.”
The Colonel beamed approval at her, clearly delighted to have found someone who played the game as he did. “See what I mean, Alex? An angel of goodness, she is. Now, my dear, you must allow me to introduce to you my son, Captain Alex Reid.”
“Captain Reid.” Penelope nodded to him, her eyes alight with laughter.
Captain Reid smiled ruefully in response, complicit in the joke on his father.
The Colonel waved a hand at Penelope. “And this is—”
“Lady Frederick Staines,” supplied Penelope.
The unaccustomed name felt clumsy on her tongue, but certainly not clumsy enough to warrant the reaction it garnered from the two Reids. Any glimmer of warmth disappeared from the Captain’s eyes, while the Colonel looked perturbed, as though he knew there were some bad odor about the name, but he couldn’t remember quite what.
There was only one conclusion to be drawn. The news had spread.
She ought to have expected it would. Just because Calcutta was half a world away didn’t mean that it took no interest in London gossip.
“What brings you to India, Lady Frederick?” the Captain asked. His studiedly casual tone brought a flush to Penelope’s cheeks.
“My husband is undertaking a commission from the government,” she said sharply. “He is to be envoy to the Court of Hyderabad.”
“And you, Lady Frederick?” he asked, in an uncomfortable echo of her own thoughts earlier that evening. Those dark eyes of his were too piercing by half. It was as though he were rooting about in her mind. Penelope didn’t like it one bit.
“Whither he goest, I goest,” said Penelope flippantly.
“I see,” said Captain Reid, but whatever he saw appeared to bring him no pleasure. After a brooding moment, he said abruptly, “Lady Frederick, do you know anything of Hyderabad?”
Penelope eyed him suspiciously, but before she could reply, a hand settled itself familiarly on her bare shoulder.
“There you are, old thing,” Freddy said, as though it was she who had walked away from him, rather than the other way around. “I wondered where you had got to.”
He had brought two friends with him, one in regimentals, the other in evening clothes. Penelope wondered which one of them carried Freddy’s vowels this time. From the smug expression on the face of the army man, Penelope suspected it was he. On the other hand, smugness might very well be his habitual expression. Penelope would expect nothing less of a man who wore three rings on one hand.
Penelope stepped out from under Freddy’s questing hand. “I’ve been very gallantly entertained by Colonel Reid,” she said, batting her lashes at the Colonel and achieving a very petty satisfaction at completely ignoring his son.
Freddy nodded lazily to the Colonel, the gesture amply conveying his complete lack of interest in any man who had served in the East India Company’s army rather than a proper royal regiment. Having dispatched the Colonel, Freddy took inventory of the Captain’s tanned face, his uninspired tailoring.
“And you are?” he demanded.
For a moment, Captain Reid forbore to answer. He simply stood there, studying Freddy with an expression of such clinical detachment that Penelope could feel Freddy beginning to shift from one foot to the other beside her.
After a very long moment, a grim smile sifted across Captain Reid’s face.
“I,” said Captain Reid, “am the man who has the honor of escorting you to Hyderabad.”