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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #FICTION/Romance/Historical

Hot Winds From Bombay (14 page)

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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Their conversation was soon interrupted as two lean and leathery drifters in dark clothes came in and sidled up to the far end of the bar, speaking between themselves in whispers. After a quick glance in their direction, Zack went back to sipping his ale. He noticed that the same doxy he and Persia had seen entering the Tail of the Devil the day before was here again, but with a different sailor. He watched as she rose and took the man’s arm. She nodded to Zack as she came toward the bar to get a key for one of the rooms upstairs.

“I’ll be down within the hour, mate, if you’re in need of anything.”

The woman looked worn and well used. No doubt she was far younger than her lined and painted face made her seem. She had probably been pretty not many years back. And her cultured accent told Zack that she came from a higher class than most of the women of her profession. The thought flickered through his mind that perhaps she had once lived in a big white house similar to the one on Gay Street, and that perhaps it was some sailor’s misdeeds that had brought her down to this level. He felt a pang of guilt. He should go back to the boarding house and try to reason with Persia. If she still refused to marry him, it was his duty to see her safely home again before they parted.

“Well, love?” the woman prompted. “Shall I meet you in an hour?”

“Thank you, but no. I already have an engagement.”

She arched a painted brow and drew her bright lips into a pout. “I’m the best on this side of Boston. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Zack answered. “I’m getting married this afternoon. But thanks anyway.”

A strange look of envy crossed the woman’s face for the briefest instant before her forced smile returned. “Well, here’s a kiss for luck, mate. And should your bride be a bit tender a few days from now, you know where to find me.”

After a quick peck at his cheek, the woman escorted her customer up the stairs and out of sight.

Zack glanced at his pocketwatch. Four forty-seven and still no Persia. He would give her until five-fifteen. If she hadn’t come by then, he would go back to their room and offer to see her home. He placed the watch on the bar, inside one of the damp circles left by his tankard. He sipped his ale and watched, mesmerized, as the hands crept slowly toward five.

So fascinated did Zack become with the physical passing of time, he never noticed when the barkeep spoke quietly to the disreputable-looking pair down the bar and then pointed in his direction before accepting their gold. He didn’t see the two men, their unshaven faces shadowed by brimmed hats, as they sidled ever closer to where he stood. It was not until he felt a hard hand on his arm that he looked up. But by then it was too late.

His last vision contained an odd collection of impressions: half the grinning face of the barkeep hidden behind a thick, hairy arm raised over him, and fingers with dirty nails clenched around a length of black pipe. These things in his line of sight meant nothing; they had no connection in his mind. By the time he heard the crack of his own skull, felt the trickle of blood down his face, and then the pain, all vision had faded.

One final word escaped with his breath as he sank to the floor: “Persia.”

When the little clock chimed five, bringing Persia out of her daze of misery, she realized it was almost too late. Whatever demons had plagued her, allowing her to let Zack leave, had also used up precious time with their tormenting folly.

Of course she wanted to marry Zack! She couldn’t just let him walk out of her life. She loved him! He was her man!

Like a slender birch tree suddenly whipped by a brisk wind, Persia whirled out of her chair and into action, her heart light and her mind made up. Zack was absolutely right—they were meant for each other. And their love was strong enough to weather any storm. She would not allow a ridiculous wager, jealousy of her sister, family ties, or even her own stubbornness to stand in the way of her happiness.

Quickly she changed into warmer clothes, brushed her hair, and pulled on her coat, aware that only minutes remained before Zack would leave the Tail of the Devil and she might never see him again. She refused to let herself feel anxious. She would make it in time, and they would go directly to the minister. An hour from now, they would be Mr. and Mrs. Zachariah Hazzard. And before the night was through, she would once again know his love and his body and the ecstasy that both brought her.

The landlady tried to stop her for a chat—asking if they would be in for supper and if there was anything else they needed—but Persia was uncharacteristically brusque with the woman, sweeping past her with hardly a word. Outside, the storm still raged, but she made haste as best she could. The ache of the cold cut through her body, making every step painful, every breath labored.

How far was the Tail of the Devil Tavern? She couldn’t remember exactly. It had seemed no distance at all the day before, but then they had been in the sleigh. Afoot in a blizzard was an entirely different matter. She trudged on, praying she would be in time.

Her heart pounded faster when she glanced up and saw the swinging sign ahead. No one seemed to be about. Perhaps in this awful weather, Zack would be the tavern’s only customer. She hoped so. She would find it most unsettling to run into a woman like the one they had seen yesterday.

Persia hurried on but stopped three buildings away when she saw the door of the tavern open and a thin shaft of light creep across the snow. The sound of boisterous voices made her shrink back into the shadows of a warehouse entrance. She peered cautiously around the doorframe.

Three men—two of them supporting their drunken friend—came out into the twilight gloom. The man in the middle, who was really only a dark shape to her from where she stood, seemed unconscious from drink. His arms were draped over the shoulders of the other men and his boots dragged along in the snow, making deep ruts. She shuddered. How could she enter such a place? What if Zack had left already and she came upon more men such as these?

She stayed secluded in her doorway until the three men disappeared in the direction of the wharves. Then, taking a deep breath to bolster her courage, she headed for the tavern door at the fastest clip she could manage.

Shoving the door open with no small amount of effort, she was assaulted by the stale, smoky air and an acrid odor that stung her eyes. For a few moments, she could see nothing at all except the fire roaring on the hearth.

“See here, ma’am, this ain’t no place for a lady.” The gruff voice boomed at her from somewhere deep inside the reeking cavern.

“I realize that,” she answered, speaking only to the gloom. “But I’m to meet someone here.”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but you must be mistaken. There’s not a soul in the place but me.” The unseen man laughed in a disconcerting tone. “If it’s me you’re looking for, the saints be praised! But it’s been a few years since anyone as fetching as you gave me the time of day.”

Time of day.
The familiar phrase leapt out at her as if she had never heard it before in her life.

“What time is it, please?” Persia asked.

Her eyes were adjusting. She saw a large, swarthy figure behind the bar peer down at a gold watch exactly like Zack’s.

“It’s nigh onto five-thirty, ma’am. What time was you to meet your gentleman friend?”

“He should have been here almost an hour ago. And he promised he’d wait exactly one hour in case I came. Perhaps you know him. Zachariah Hazzard? He told me he’s stayed here often when he’s ashore.”

The big man made a clucking sound with his tongue. “A sailor, eh? The whole lot of them should be keelhauled for tampering with ladies such as yourself. Begging your pardon, ma’am, but you ain’t the first to be taken in by one of those satin-tongued sea dogs.”

“No! It wasn’t that way.” Persia’s panic was rising. “We’re to be married this afternoon. Please, he
must
have been here. Didn’t he say where he was going?”

“I’m sorry, miss.” The barkeep shook his head in seeming sympathy. “I know no Zachariah Hazzard. And it’s been a slow afternoon on account of the storm. If a stranger’d come in, I would have noticed. There is one man upstairs with a woman named Chastity. Could that be
your
man?”

“No!” Persia cried, fighting hard to hold back the tears.

“You’re sure?”

She hung her head, not wanting the man to see her face. No, she wasn’t sure. But how could she admit that? Her silence spoke for her.

“If you’d care to take a peek, miss, the room next door’s empty and there’s a knothole in the wall behind a picture. I’ll let you have the key. It wouldn’t take no more than a moment to be certain sure.”

Persia’s eyes were still downcast. She couldn’t see the lewd grin of enjoyment splitting the barkeep’s face even as his voice dripped sympathy and understanding. Zachariah Hazzard was not the man upstairs with Chastity and Clancey knew it. But the feel of the ill-gotten gold in his pockets and the fine new watch hanging at his belt made him bold. There was a certain pleasure, too, in knowing that this beauty had belonged to Hazzard, but that he would see her no more. By dawn the
Alissa May
would have sailed from Boston harbor, and she alone would be the shanghaied sailor’s mistress from now on. As for this fiery-haired beauty old Zack had meant to marry, perhaps a peep through the hole at Chastity and her man would put the lass in an amorous mood. And Chancey was ever ready to accommodate a pretty woman.

“I’ll show you the way,” he offered.

Persia could not find her voice to answer. But when the man took a key off the wall and started toward the stairs, she followed.

The upstairs hall was dark and cold and smelled of unchanged linens and unscrubbed floors. A rat scurried across the boards, and Persia bit her lip to keep from shrieking. How could Zack have stayed in a place like this?

“Well, here you be,” the man announced, holding the door for her. “Just climb up on the bed and move the picture of George Washington aside a bit. You’ll be able to see if he’s your man.”

Persia hesitated. She wanted to ask the man to leave her, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. He stood in the doorway after she entered, blocking the whole frame with his bulk.

Carefully, she climbed up and shifted the country’s noble hero.

“Go ahead, miss. Put your eye right to the hole.”

She did as he ordered and immediately had to stifle a cry of shock. There on the bare mattress in the adjoining room lay a man and woman, their naked bodies tangled in much the same manner she and Zack had been entwined the night before. She could see clearly the woman’s painted face as she lay beneath her partner’s sweating, heaving body. But the man atop her was unidentifiable. It could be Zack. He was big of frame and his tousled hair was the same sun-streaked brown. Persia forced the rising bile to remain in her throat even as she commanded herself to continue gazing at the pair.

The man’s white buttocks jerked as if in spasm as he thrust at the woman beneath him. Their moans and sighs mingled, making Persia burn all over. This couldn’t be Zack! She would die of shame if it were.

Finally the man rolled away from the woman, and Persia saw them both clearly. She was sure they must have heard her gasp of relief and the scrape of the picture as she quickly covered the hole in the wall.

“Well?” Clancey asked expectantly.

“No!”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Sorry!
Persia’s heart was rejoicing. How could he express sorrow? Then she realized what he meant. Now she had no idea where Zack might be.

“Miss, I’d like to help.” The man was clutching her arm too tightly as he assisted her down from the bed. “If he’s left you stranded, I’ve been needing a girl in the bar to help out. The job’s yours for the asking.”

The very idea horrified Persia. She had a difficult time keeping her voice civil as she declined his offer.

“Boston can be a cold place for a woman alone,” he warned.

“I won’t be staying here. I’m going home.”

“And you think they’ll welcome you back?” He chuckled in that ugly way of his. “Ask Chastity about that. She tried to go home after her man left her. Wealthy people, her folks are. Real society. You see how she ended up. It could happen to you. I’m offering you a way out. A
respectable
way.”

“Thank you very much.” They were downstairs now and Persia could hardly wait to escape the Tail of the Devil. “I’ll come back, if my plans don’t work out.”

“You do that,” he said, breathing foul breath into her face.

She broke away and ran for the door. Not until she was once more plodding through the snow all alone did the desperate weight of her situation strike her. Tears burned cold tracks down her cheeks and a hopelessness settled over her like none she had ever known.

She wandered aimlessly for hours in the snow. She was freezing, but she no longer felt the cold. Finally, she found herself at the waterfront, standing before a ship that was readying to sail. The carved figurehead was that of a beautiful woman with flowing red hair and full, peaked breasts. Her eyes were painted blue and she seemed to be gazing down on Persia with contempt. Persia read the name on the ship’s scroll… the
Alissa May.
The name meant nothing to her, although she knew many of the vessels that sailed out of Boston and their owners’ and captains’ names as well.

She moved away, wandering aimlessly into the night. But the water kept drawing her back. If Zack was gone, she might just as well be dead. She stared down at the dark, lapping sea. She’d always heard that drowning was a fast and painless way to die. A quick plunge into the icy depths and all the pain would flow out of her. She inched closer to the edge, then closer still.

She could almost feel the cold black water closing over her… the release… the welcome nothingness. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and held it. She leaned forward, ready to meet death.

But suddenly some unseen force pulled her back. She stood shivering, crying, and staring down at the very place that had almost been her grave.

She couldn’t do it! Zack was alive somewhere. He hadn’t left her forever. She would find him again if it took the rest of her life.

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
11.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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