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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

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

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BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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“Oh, Zack,” she breathed, needing to hear her own voice to know that this wasn’t a dream.

“Not exactly the Tail of the Devil, is it, darling?” he whispered back.

The array of guests proved as dazzling as their surroundings. Mr. Cunningham and his plump, gray-haired wife, Grace, immediately took Persia and Zack to greet the acting governor-general, Sir Charles Metcalf. He in turn escorted them across the floor to introduce them to their benefactor, the Maharajah of Gwalior.

The handsome ruler bowed over Persia’s hand for some time, murmuring lavish compliments. When he raised his elegantly turbaned head once more and stared a direct and very bold invitation into her eyes, Persia felt herself blushing all over. She was also very aware of Zack, bristling at her side. But she could hardly create an international incident by slapping the maharajah’s face, albeit he was fully deserving. All she could do was stand there with a smile frozen on her face, allowing him to stare and murmur his intriguingly accented and indecently intoned phrases to her.

Trying not to hear the man’s suggestions, she concentrated on his face. He was golden; there was no other description for the color of his skin. His features were so fine and delicate that he might have looked effeminate had it not been for the thin mustache following the line of his sensuous lips. Persia found him exotic, outrageous, but hardly appealing.

Appealing
was exactly what the maharajah found Persia, however. Khande Rao had admired and partaken of many women in his twenty-seven years. At present, four wives and eleven concubines kept him fairly occupied. But not one of them could compare with this fire-haired American beauty. The way her eyes shone, glittering blue like precious sapphires… the way her lips parted ever so slightly, as if in invitation… the proud column of her neck… those cool, pale breasts thrusting up out of their silvery silk prison, begging him to touch them, to fondle them, to suckle them until the nipples turned hard and peaked against his tongue.

“Your Majesty,” Sir Charles Metcalf broke in. “The orchestra has begun playing. Won’t you and the maharani lead out?”

Persia glanced in the direction toward which the governor-general inclined his head. She saw a lovely russet-skinned woman, swathed in a sari of silver and gold. A veil covered all of her beautiful face except for her flashing black eyes and bejeweled forehead.

“I think not, sir,” answered the brash young ruler. “I would have this one as my partner.”

Persia was not given an option. The maharajah swept her into his arms and out onto the sparkling floor. The two of them glowed in the mirrored walls—she in silver and pearls, he in gold and rubies. She could feel the hard gems that studded his coat stabbing into her breasts.

“Ah, you dance well for a foreigner, Mrs. Blackwell.”

Odd, she hadn’t thought of herself as the foreigner here. But, of course, she was one.

“And you do not talk much,” he said. “I like that in my women.”

His women!
What was he saying?

“I cannot, of course, take you as a wife since you are American. But I am sure my number-one concubine will relinquish her position to you.” He gave a low, amused laugh. “She will have no choice, actually. No more than you will. As for your husband, he is a reasonable man and I will pay him well for you.”

Persia found herself gasping for breath, searching for words. The man was deranged!

“We shall return to my palace this very night. I will order the other women to bathe you and perfume and oil your naked body. But I myself will claim the pleasure of draping you in priceless treasures befitting your beauty. Rubies for your flaming hair.” He reached up to stroke her temple. “Pearls for your white throat.” His slender fingers grazed the side of her neck. “And diamonds for your pale, succulent breasts.” He pressed his hand to one silk-encased mound.

Persia tried to pull out of his embrace, but he held her fast and danced on. Finally, bringing his lips very close to her ear, he said, “And when I have adorned and adored every other part of you, then and only then shall the jewel enter the lotus!”

Persia gasped aloud. Catching Zack’s eye—not a difficult task—she pleaded silently for rescue.

A general shocked murmur went up around the ballroom when Zack tapped the maharajah on the shoulder and swept Persia out of the startled ruler’s arms and across the shining floor.

“Breathe deeply, darling. You’ll soon be all right,” he said.

“I’m fine now, Zack. I’m not sick. I just had to get away from that horrid man.”

“The maharajah?”

“Yes. He said some shocking things to me while we were dancing. I think he planned to take me off to his harem.”

Zack laughed. “Persia, you’re exaggerating. The man already has more women than he can handle. What could he possibly have said to get you so upset?”

His casual treatment of what had happened infuriated her.

“You want to know what he said?” she cried. “I’ll tell you, then. He said he was going to take me to his palace and put
his
jewel in
my
lotus!”

Zack’s laughter ended abruptly. “He didn’t!”

“He did!”

“The sneaking, insulting little bastard!”

Zack wasn’t the only one scowling in the Bombay Club at that moment. At the far entrance to the ballroom a stranger had entered. He was dressed in black except for his white cleric’s collar. Dark hair framed his long, stern face—a face that seemed to condemn the folly of the world and of the woman he was watching. His pale, almost colorless eyes narrowed, and his mouth tightened into a thin, angry line.

Suddenly, his voice boomed through the chamber, “Persia Blackwell! We’ll be going now!”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Stunned by the sound of her name echoing through the great hall, Persia froze in midstep. Cyrus Blackwell—she knew it could be none other—stood between two crystal pillars like a vengeful Samson, ready to pull the temple down on the heads of the sinners.

“It can’t be! He wasn’t supposed to return this soon,” she gasped, gripping Zack’s arm. “What am I going to do?”

“Steady, darling,” he whispered back. “Let me handle this.”

Zack left Persia and strode toward the other man. “Reverend Blackwell, I presume?”

“Correct, Captain Hazzard. But you presume far too much, it seems, when it comes to my wife. If idleness tempts the devil, then dancing invites him to move right in. It’s no proper pastime for a minister’s wife. For any Christian woman, in fact. I’ve been remiss in not coming to collect her sooner. But I’ll have her away from here and repenting her sins soon enough.” The missionary raised one thin hand to summon Persia.

“She’s not going with you, Blackwell,” Zack declared.

“I don’t believe that’s your decision to make. The woman is
my
wife!”

The two men stood toe to toe, glaring at each other. Persia remained where Zack had left her. She wanted to flee, but where could she go?

“She’s only your wife by virtue of a piece of paper. And that’s as much a wife as she’ll ever be to you. She wants an annulment.” Zack tried to keep his voice civil, but it was difficult as he stared into the missionary’s haughty and sanctimonious countenance. “She made a mistake. But we can all thank God she’s realized it in time.”

“You’re right enough about the mistakes she’s made. But I doubt God is involved in this. The devil is, more likely. He’s brought you back to steal her soul. Her holy vows, however, were spoken in God’s sight, as were mine. We are already one according to His law.”

“But according to the laws of man, she is still her own woman. She’s no slave who can be purchased, then ordered to obey.”

As if summoned by Zack’s words, the maharajah approached the pair and caught Cyrus Blackwell by the arm. “I would have a word with you, holy one.”

Blackwell stared at the Indian ruler for a moment before he offered him an insincere smile. “In a moment, Khande Rao.”

“It is most urgent. Now, if you please.”

Cyrus Blackwell shot a stern glance toward Persia before he turned from Zack to hear the maharajah out.

“This woman of yours,” began the Indian. “I would have her for my own. How much?”

“You do my wife a great honor with your offer, Khande Rao, but she has no price.”

“Ten thousand rupees, Blackwell.” The maharajah’s dark eyes gleamed with excitement. He loved to barter almost as much as he loved women. “And I will give you my prize elephant also.”

Blackwell hesitated, glanced toward Persia, then shook his head. “She is my
wife!
I cannot sell her any more than you could sell the maharani.”

Khande Rao looked to his own wife, as if he thought he might barter one for the other. When he turned back to Blackwell, his face was lit with the excitement of a new idea.

“Then another bargain. I will pay you the full amount that I have offered for only one night with the pale- breasted American. Let me deflower her, then I will return her to you.”

Blackwell’s sarcastic laughter rumbled low in his throat, making heads turn. But when he spoke, only the maharajah heard his words.

“My dear Khande Rao, whatever led you to believe my wife could still be deflowered? I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Ask her
friend.
Captain Hazzard, if you don’t believe me.”

Zack had moved back to Persia’s side. He could feel her trembling, but there seemed nothing he could do to reassure her.

“Zack, please, just get me out of here,” she begged.

“That isn’t the solution, darling. We have to reason with the man and finish it once and for all tonight. Then we won’t have to worry about Cyrus Blackwell any longer. We’ll be free.”

“What do you suppose is going on between him and the maharajah?”

“I have no idea, but at least they’re giving me time to think. Persia, I want you to talk to Blackwell. Explain to him that you were under a great deal of strain back home. You might even point out that his own sister created a lot of the unpleasantness you were trying to escape. Maybe a dose of family guilt will make him see the light.”

Persia was about to protest his idea when Blackwell’s laughter drew her attention. She stared, wondering what had been said to destroy the missionary’s stern façade.

Suddenly she realized that everyone was staring at her, waiting to see what she would do—which man she would choose. The other women in the room twittered to each other behind their fans. The men shuffled nervously, alternately stealing curious glances at her and looking directly away, coughing into tightly clenched fists. She wanted to dig a hole in the marble floor and hide herself. But all she could do was stand her ground and endure. It was Maine and Birdie Blackwell and the curious stares of the congregation all over again.

“Please, Zack! Take me out of here!”

“All right, darling. You wait in the next room. I’ll deal with Blackwell.”

“No! Let’s just go back to the ship and set sail. Now! I have this terrible feeling… .”

But as the two of them headed for the door, Cyrus Blackwell barred their path.

“I think we have something to discuss, Sister Persia,” he said quietly, ignoring Zack Hazzard’s fierce look. “If you’ll come along with me, I’d like to speak with you in private.”

Persia tried to draw away. “Please, I don’t want to go with you. There’s nothing to discuss.”

“Be that as it may, if I’m to consent to this annulment, you owe me an explanation of some sort.” He smiled almost warmly.

Persia looked from Blackwell to Zack, and her eyes brimmed with happy tears. The man was willing to let her go. She’d never have believed it would be so easy.

She squeezed Zack’s arm and gave him a confident look. “I won’t be long,” she told him. Then she let Cyrus Blackwell lead her to a private chamber just off the ballroom.

The room was a small library, its walls lined with rare old first editions. Had her mind been free of more pressing matters, she could have spent happy hours here browsing. But she forgot the books as soon as Blackwell closed the door behind him.

“Have a seat, my dear. I don’t want you to be nervous. I only want you to explain to me why you’ve changed your mind.”

Persia sat and stared up at him. His new tone and demeanor bolstered her courage. He was smiling again, and his expression softened the harsh lines of his face. She realized that he must have been quite handsome in his younger days. She wondered suddenly how old he was. She had no idea. His sister had seemed ancient, but he was many years her junior. Perhaps in his fifties.

“Take your time, Persia. I know this is difficult for you. But you must understand my feelings. I’ve been waiting almost a year for your arrival. I’ve spared neither labor nor expense to furnish my new bungalow so that you would be as comfortable as possible here. But more than that, I have great work to do, and I can’t do it all alone. I
need
a wife. And I was praying that you would fill that need.”

Persia felt a stab of guilt. This wasn’t going to be as simple as she’d thought. Suddenly, she wondered if the time on board ship with Zack had been her reward for having married Cyrus Blackwell. No, that was silly! How could she even think that God would not only allow her to commit adultery, but would send her the man she longed for—all because she’d been a “good girl” to volunteer to marry a missionary? Her cheeks flamed at her own hypocrisy.

“Well, Persia? What about this
annulmentl”

She couldn’t look him in the eye. Instead, she stared down at her trembling hands as she said, “I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I thought I could make up for the wrongs I’ve done in my life by marrying you and coming here to serve your flock.”

“Then you admit to having done wrong? That’s a step in the right direction. We must confess our sins before they can be forgiven.”

His words annoyed her. She gave him a hard look, then dropped her gaze once more. “Do you consider love a sin?”

“The wrong kind of love, yes. With the wrong person.”

“How does one know the right person from the wrong one?” Again she looked at him, anxious to see his face when he gave her an answer.

He was smiling slightly, but his pale gray eyes looked hard. “It is a Christian’s duty to know right from wrong, my child. The fact that you were very young when this man first tempted you is a point in your favor and a mark against him. I learned from my sister’s letters that you paid dearly for that first mistake with your own mother’s life. Now the devil himself has sent his henchman, Captain Hazzard, back to finish the dastardly work he began ten long years ago. You should be wiser now—more cautious of your soul.” He shook his head and his face hardened. “But it seems that you were only too eager to fling yourself back into his arms when he stepped into your life again. You are no child now. You know better. You have piled sin upon sin. Your burden is heavy.”

Persia felt pain twist her heart when he mentioned her mother. She lashed out, “My heaviest burden at the moment is the name
Blackwell,
sir!” She was on her feet again, angry and ready to do battle. “I would like to have done with it at the soonest possible instant!”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. Blackwell is an old and noble name. It has been respected down through generation upon generation.” He stared hard at Persia, branding her with the blaze of indignation in his eyes. “And now you would refuse it?
You,
Persia Whiddington, who are no more than a common—”

He broke off, lowering his gaze and his voice. “But no. Forgive me. It is not my place to judge. That in itself would be a grave sin.”

Then, before Persia could protest, he took her hand in his. “Let me just say this, my dear. God loves you, and I will, too. We are all put here on this earth for a purpose. Mine is to serve Him. But I know that there are others who serve different masters—greed, lust, personal fulfillment. Your Captain Hazzard is one of that breed, sent only to tempt you and lure you to evil. I had thought that you were different, that you had heard the calling. But if it is not in your heart to repent of your sins by tending the sick, feeding the hungry, and converting the savage, then you are better off with him. But go to him knowing that neither of you can sink without dragging down the other. Even as he stole your precious virginity so long ago, you will take from him his very soul. Sin begets sin even as love begets love.”

Persia was wavering—not that his arguments had swayed her, but she refused to be branded a misfit or outcast. As for Zack, Blackwell spoke the truth. Her own position and actions had made an adulterer of him!

“If things had turned out otherwise,” she began, “I’m sure that I could have served your people well. But one’s heart must be in it. My heart belongs elsewhere.”

He shook his head, slowly and pityingly. “I hear your words, my child. But your eyes speak other phrases. Hazzard has tricked you into thinking he cares for you. But he went away before. How can you be certain that he’ll stay with you now?” The missionary sighed. “I only wish it were within my power to help you.”

“I don’t understand.” Persia felt numb. “Help me how?”

“Think about this carefully, Persia. Is it truly your
heart
that you’re speaking of, or is this great passion of yours merely a craving of the body?”

Persia gasped at his words. How dare he suggest such a thing?

“Hear me out, my child. Lust is a powerful master, especially to a woman. My own dead wife, God keep her, fought the demon bravely and conquered him at last. She was not so different from you when we first met. I took her out of white slavery. I cleansed her. I helped her to see the light. She was ever grateful… ever blessed.”

“Your wife was a…?”

“A
good woman
forced into bad ways. The same as you, Persia. But she’s in heaven now. Where do
you
want to go?”

Persia hesitated in her answer. She felt confused, upset, defeated. She wanted to do the right thing, but what about Zack? She’d spent years yearning for him. Or had she been, as Cyrus Blackwell suggested, only
lusting
for him? Still, how could she turn away from him now? Guilt riddled her conscience. She had made a commitment to this man. Not only to Cyrus Blackwell, but to the people he served. Even to God! Could she go back on
that?

“Pray with me, Persia. Let Him cast out all your fears and doubts. Let Him show you the way.”

The missionary took Persia’s hands in his, and the two of them knelt together. His pleas to God to save her boomed through the air and pounded within her breast. On and on he went, filling her with his holy fire of salvation or damnation; there was no middle ground. She was a fallen woman whose shame had killed her own mother. She was a sinner in need of a savior. He was her husband, ready and willing to take on the task. If she refused him, both she and her lover would be eternally doomed. The past could be forgiven. But the future now lay in her hands and God’s. She was weak. She needed to be shown the way.

Persia was trembling, quaking inside, fighting against tears of shame and doubt and hopelessness. She was five years old again, shuddering beneath the onslaught of the fiery-tongued minister in the big white church on Main Street. She was an unhappy young woman again, standing beside her mother’s grave and suffering the gujlt of Victoria Whiddington’s death. She was floundering, searching, ever reaching for the light. Suddenly, she felt the white-hot spark of redemption, warming her through and through. She gasped.

Blackwell grasped her tightly to his chest, whispering fiercely to her, “Sister of sin, do you repent? Do you denounce your old ways—the devil’s ways—to walk hand in hand with your husband and your God? Answer now or forevermore be consumed by the eternal fires of damnation!”

“Yes, yes!” she cried hysterically. “I repent! Save me!” she sobbed. “Oh, save me, my husband!”

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