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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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“Where do you think you’re going?”

She couldn’t answer. The sun beating down on her, his hands binding her arms, the fear swelling in her heart, all worked together to make her weak.

“Didn’t I warn you about the cave? You are a foolish woman!”

Gone was the whimpering half-child she had coerced into confessing last night. No vestige remained of the gentle lover who had held her in his dead sister’s place only a few hours past. Vanished was the cringing weakling he had been. There was no need to threaten this man with the root cellar. This was Cyrus Blackwell—lord over all on Elephanta Island, owner of the woman he had married.

He dragged her back to the bungalow. She was beyond protesting. She knew his secrets. There could be only one fate left to her. It was too late to hope for rescue… too late even to pray for a miracle.

But it seemed to Persia that somehow the miraculous was still possible. As they neared the bungalow, she spied another man coming up the path from the docks.

“Zack,” she wailed, but he was too far away to hear her.

“Yes,
Zack,”
Blackwell hissed. “Your lover come to rescue you, no doubt. And you’d like to go with him, wouldn’t you?”

Persia glared at the man still restraining her.
“Yes,”
she said defiantly.

“As I thought. But I don’t believe you will.”

“You can’t stop me!”

Cyrus laughed softly. “Are you so sure about that? See the clump of shrubs over there, Persia dear?” he asked, too pleasantly. “Note the way the leaves glitter with a certain blue-black gleam at about the height of a man’s heart?”

She looked and saw the sun glint off a gun barrel. Her heart sank.

“Jammu can shoot out a cobra’s eye from this distance easily. Should you give the slightest hint that you are unhappy here and wish to leave, I’m afraid your lover will be
terribly hurt.
Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Persia, cold of heart and voice, answered, “Yes, Cyrus. You’ve made yourself quite clear.”

When Zack arrived before the bungalow, he was greeted by a sight that both warmed his heart and froze his blood. Persia—beautiful, loving Persia—filled his vision. Her blue eyes sparkled, making him remember how she looked when they made love. But the missionary’s arm clasped her waist possessively. Could it be that Mrs. Cunningham was right—that she had accepted this man as her husband after all?

“Persia?” Zack called. “I’ve come to take you home.”

A silence followed. Persia’s throat felt tight and dry. She eyed the gun barrel poking out of the shrubs and felt Cyrus’s grip tighten on her waist.

“That’s kind of you, Zack, but I can’t go.”

“Can’t?” he yelled back.

“Won’t!”
Cyrus hissed into her ear.

“Won’t,” she answered, her voice quivering now.

“You don’t mean that!” He was starting up the hill toward her.

“Better tell him not to come any closer,” Cyrus whispered harshly.

“Please, Zack, stay where you are!” Persia tried to keep her voice calm, but there was an edge of hysteria to it. He was so close. Yet to have him come to her would mean his death. “I won’t go with you, Zack. My place is here… with my
husband!”

“What about us?” He refused to give her up so easily. She was everything to him!

“Us? That’s over now,” she called. “I belong here! I’m
happy
here!”

“I don’t believe you, Persia. I’m coming up there.”

She heard the click of the rifle cocking. “No, Zack!” she cried. “Go away! It’s over. Can’t you accept that?”

No, he couldn’t accept that. But something was very wrong here. He had a feeling Persia was trying to protect him from something. He glanced about but saw nothing, no one.

“Please go now, Zack.”

She was crying, he could tell.

“Come with me, darling?”

“I can’t!” she sobbed.

She watched him turn and start back down the hill, her heart tearing apart with every step he took. He would soon be out of Jammu’s range. All she had to do was break away and run to him. She’d be free of this place and Cyrus Blackwell forever.

She was on the verge of doing just that when her husband said, “I thought for a moment there that Jammu would have to kill him. You did well, wife. You must love him very much. Perhaps I should have let you summon him and have one last kiss. Then you could have spent the rest of eternity together. It seems almost a shame to send you on ahead of him. But after last night, it can’t be helped.”

She pulled away from him, but he caught her arm.

“I was afraid you might try that. Go, then; but before you do, let me answer your question about the ships. You never let me finish last night. This very day a vessel will be putting in on the far side of the island. But this one will be
loading
cargo. Should you decide to run to your Zack, or disobey me in any way, I’ll see that your precious Sindhu is taken to the slave markets with the other children I’ve selected. Do exactly as I say, and Sindhu will be spared.”

Persia’s first impulse was to sob hysterically. But knowing her fate was about to be sealed, a burning anger flamed to life in her heart. Yes, he would kill her! She had known that since last night. But she would not go with a whimper and a tear. And she would not see Sindhu sold into slavery.

“Well,
wife,
shall we go into the house now?”

She glared up at him. “You go to the devil,
husband!”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Zachariah Hazzard hadn’t been fooled one bit by Persia’s act. She might have told him to go in so many words, but her eyes also had talked to him. And the tone of her voice had spoken volumes to him of her despair and her need to escape. Even her posture had conveyed her terror. Something was
very
wrong on Elephanta Island!

Now, as he rowed silently across the stretch of water that separated the two of them once more, he strained his eyes and ears for the slightest hint of any danger that might be lying in his path. Not danger to his own life; he could handle anything that threatened. But danger that might keep him from rescuing the woman he loved. For tonight he would spirit her away under cover of darkness. And
nothing
would stop him.

The past hours in Bombay had been well spent. He’d finally backed Cunningham into a corner and made him talk about Cyrus Blackwell. The agent’s earlier reticence had been due to his own involvement, Zack learned. Cunningham was not only working as agent to sell the crops grown on Elephanta—he was disposing of illegal cargoes as well, opium being the most profitable. Selling Indian children into white slavery ran a close second.

It seemed that in India when foreigners broke laws that involved the natives—in this case stealing children—often they were never prosecuted but wound up quietly murdered in their sleep. Cunningham, caught by his own greed and seeing no way out, was less than anxious to sip poison and partake of eternal slumber. But neither did the prospect of having Captain Hazzard’s big hands around his throat delight him. He talked.

And Zack knew that if Persia had learned even a fraction of what he had just found out, she was in dire trouble. He only hoped he could reach her in time.

After Zack left the island that morning, Persia had expected her own death to come at any moment. Instead, Blackwell had forced her back into the house and ordered her to her room to bathe and change. When she came out, he was waiting in the parlor.

“Have a seat, won’t you?” he offered quietly, almost cordially.

Persia sat, but on the very edge of the chair. Death, when it came, might be swift, but the waiting… the wondering… was a special kind of hell.

“I’ve had Indira fix you a drink. Please don’t refuse it. This isn’t going to be easy on either of us.”

Persia stared at him. He was so different from the night before. How could he be one man one moment and another the next?

He took a long sip from his own frosted glass and smiled at her. “It’s really too bad, you know. I think you and I might have been good together, Persia. But then it’s too late for conjecture now, I suppose. I’m really sorry for what I have to do. But, of course, I have no other choice after last night.”

“What about last night? What happened to you?” If she was going to die anyway, she was certainly going to find out a few things first.

He sighed deeply and set his glass down. When he leaned forward—arms on his knees—he looked so casual, so very
normal.
“I don’t want your pity,” he began. “God knows I’ve had enough of that for ten lifetimes. Hannah smothered me with hers. And as for Birdie, she nearly destroyed me with it.” He laughed cynically. “Well, with my sister, actually, it was a mixture of pity and guilt.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”

He arched a brow and smiled sadly. “Don’t you? You mean you don’t know what happened last night? Come now, Persia! You’re a bright woman. Don’t make this more difficult for me than it already is. The
root cellar
… the
game
? You don’t understand?”

“Only partly.”

He sighed. “Where to begin? Birdie’s mother died when she was very young. Our father remarried almost immediately. But it was a number of years before I was born. Birdie was in her late teens. Of course, like all men, my father had always wanted a son. He was overjoyed when I came along. He lavished his affection on me alone. I’m afraid my mother had turned him against Birdie even before that time. Mother was a beautiful woman—black hair, flashing brown eyes, lovely skin. And she had, let us say, a
winning way
with our father. Birdie, I learned, resented her terribly. The antipathy was mutual. There was little harmony in our household, until…” He paused and looked away from Persia.

“Yes, Cyrus?
Until?”

“Until Birdie made up the game. I was always terrified of the dark when I was small. Birdie played upon that whenever she could. She took malicious glee in terrorizing me. Because of my mother, our parents were caught up in the social whirl of York County. They often left Birdie home to watch after me. She had no beaus, no prospects for marriage. She was a sharp-tongued old maid in the making. She hated the thought. And she hated me! To get her revenge, she would wait until Mother and Father were away, then she would lock me down in the root cellar. She threatened to do even worse if I dared tell my mother.”

Persia could hardly believe it, but she was beginning to feel sympathy for the man. They had both suffered a great deal of pain at Birdie Blackwell’s hands.

“One night when I was about twelve and Birdie had been left in charge by our parents, she burst into my room and found me naked, examining myself with some curiosity. I had just bathed and was getting ready for bed when the oddest thing happened to me. I knew it was evil to touch myself; Mother had told me so. But I did and it caused this strange swelling. I was terrified, sure that I would be bloated and dead before morning.” He laughed softly. “You know how children are.”

Persia remembered her terror at her first monthly bleeding and nodded.

“Well, Birdie came into my room and found me that way. I remember being more terrified of her at that moment than I was even of dying. I knew she would lock me away, and I didn’t want to die alone in the dark. But instead, she came to me and knelt down and stroked me. I was crying, but she soothed my tears away, assuring me that everything would be all right.”

Persia shuddered, imagining the scene.

“She took me to her bed… and, well, the game began that night. I know now that I was her first lover. And after that, whenever our parents were out, we played Birdie’s game.”

“Did your parents ever find out?” Persia asked almost timidly.

“No, not completely. But they came home one night to find me still in Birdie’s bed. Both of us were asleep. But both of us were also naked. My father gave me a terrible beating. My parents never realized how attached we were to each other… how much we loved each other.”

“But you left, Cyrus. You left Quoddy Cove and Birdie. What happened?”

His face lost its calm, and his eyes narrowed to dark slits. “Birdie found someone else. I can’t explain the jealousy I felt at the time. I threatened to kill her. She laughed at me. In a fit of spite, I began seeing her suitor’s younger sister. Birdie only laughed at my attempts to win her back. She told me I was a
foolish boy.
I hated her! Oh, how I hated her!” He smiled—a mad, vicious smile. “I plotted to get even. Finally, I came up with a plan. I would do away with the man. Then Birdie would be mine again. But the night I torched the house, only the mother and the girl I had been seeing were at home. Birdie’s lover escaped. Still, I frightened her enough so that she stopped seeing him. But I had to go away. She said it wasn’t safe for me to stay. The seminary, too, was her idea. She said no one would suspect me of the crime then. So I went, and here I am.”

Persia had lost her fear. She was numb. “And Hannah?” she asked quietly.

“I loved her. She was the only woman I never compared with Birdie,” he wailed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “From the first moment I saw her, I knew I had to have her. She loved me, too, or so I thought. But her parents refused to allow us to marry. I wasn’t good enough for her! She had to have a
prince
!” He lowered his voice. “Well, I should have let him have her. She was no wife to me. I worshiped the ground she walked, but she only scoffed at me. She threw herself into God’s work; for that she cannot be faulted. But she wanted no part of being a wife. She would taunt me, tease me: ‘Brother Cyrus, won’t you please brush my hair?’” He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I can still smell that raven-black hair—like passion flowers in the bright sun. It felt soft as the finest silk. She was so beautiful—almost as beautiful as my mother. But then when she found the necklace, it was all over. I knew I couldn’t let her live, as much as I loved her.”

He had tears in his eyes. Persia fought the urge to feel sorry for him. The man was a
murderer,
many times over!
And she was to be his next victim!

He looked at her suddenly and there was a fierce light in his pale eyes. “Persia, why did you come here? You didn’t need me, you had
him
! How could you have been so foolish? How could you have thrown away love and wasted your life so?”

She felt a moment of hope. “It isn’t too late, Cyrus. I know the right path now. If you’d just let me go.”

He stared hard at her, seeming to waver, seeming to try to make a decision. But finally he shook his head. “No. Had it not been for last night, we might have bargained. But when I took you then, you were everything to me that Birdie had ever been—everything that Hannah refused to be. It
is
too late. You are truly my
wife
now! I’m a jealous man, Persia. I
won’t
let him have you! As for myself, I can live with the pain and the guilt no longer. I long for the comfort of death. But I would know no ease, even on the other side, if I left you here for him.”

“What are you saying?”

“Indira!” he called suddenly. “Come and prepare Sister Persia. It is time for the
suttee!”

“Cyrus, wait! Tell me what’s going on,” Persia begged.

He smiled at her sadly. “You wanted to see the cave. I will show you.”

Zack was in the boat Cunningham had procured for him. Faintly, in the distance, he could see the outline of Elephanta’s shore. He stroked hard, and soon the dark island was looming large before him. He could hear chanting and the wailing of many souls. Some sort of ceremony was in progress. He bent to his oars. He
must
make it in time!

All the inhabitants of Elephanta were gathered at the cave. Persia stared from face to face, trying to find a sympathetic eye. But all the dark eyes were downcast. Each face wore a mask of sorrowful acceptance. She now knew what fate awaited her. She was about to become a victim of the ancient rite of
suttee
—the burning alive of a widow with her husband’s corpse.

Long shadows danced about the walls and ceiling of the cave, making the three fierce images of the
Trimurti
seem alive as they gazed down on the funeral pyre.

She stood beside Cyrus Blackwell—her hands bound—wearing a flowing white robe to match his shroud. Even in the humid warmth of the underground cave, Persia felt cold. It was the cold of death.

Wailing chants filled the cave. The pyre was ready, piled high with sandalwood. Nearby, another, smaller flame melted the butter that would be clarified into ghee, to be smeared on their corpses to purify them and send their souls on their way to whatever afterlife awaited them.

Persia was given a draft of bitter brown liquid to drink. She was beyond refusing. It seemed to her that death lingered already in the cave. There was no escape. The vultures from the Towers of Silence hovered near.

Cyrus kissed her cold cheek. “I will go before you and be waiting on the other side. Remember, physical pain is nothing. You will join me in an instant.”

Whatever herb or drug Persia had been given had dulled her mind and senses. She was beyond fighting now. Cyrus’s words were received and accepted.

She watched as two white-robed figures set torch to the pyre. She knew her husband was to die first. She did not know how. She heard a click, looked up. Jammu’s rifle was aimed at Cyrus’s heart. In another instant he would be dead, and she would be forced to join his body on the flaming pyre.

“No!” Persia cried. “No, you can’t!
Please/”

Suddenly, the sound of bells assaulted her ears. A great gust of wind whipped through the cave. The flames leaped higher and higher. She stared at Cyrus. Any moment now, she knew she would see the bullet strike him and a red blossom of blood spring from his chest. When that happened, it would be the end for her, too. She tried to remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but they refused to come. The only thing that did come was a scream.

Zack was halfway up the stone steps that led to the mouth of the cave when he heard Persia’s hysterical cries. He took the last of the flight in great bounding leaps. The sight that greeted him at the mouth of the cave froze his blood. Beneath the ancient idols carved into the rock, a crescent of dull-eyed natives stood watching as Cyrus Blackwell opened Persia’s robe.

“We will know each other once more before the end,” the missionary said.

She tried to pull away from him, but he held her in place.

Zack leaped at the man, knocking him away. Blackwell went sprawling, taking several of the spectators to the cave’s floor with him. Without giving the missionary time to recover, he scooped Persia up and fled. She felt like a limp doll in his arms. And all the while, as he raced down the stone steps, she kept murmuring, “No, please, no.”

“Darling, it’s all right now,” he said, trying to reassure her, but she seemed not to hear him.

By the time he placed her in the bow of the boat and shoved away from the stone wharf, he could hear other footsteps thudding down of the steep hill.

“I should have killed the bloody bastard,” he said. But this was no time to waste breath on should-haves. He needed all of his wind and strength for rowing. It was a long way across to the mainland. And if he allowed their pursuers to overtake them, it would mean his death and worse for Persia.

Zack eased the boat into shore just as the first streaks of dawn were tinting Malabar Hill with feathers of gold among the green treetops. Persia had not spoken a word the whole time. She seemed in a daze of terror.

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