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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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“Persia,” he whispered, “do you think you can walk?”

She cringed away from him, wild-eyed. “No, don’t touch me!”

“Darling, it’s me—Zack. You’re safe now, but we have to get away from here. Blackwell and the others are right behind us. They’ll be here any minute.”

“Zack?” Her voice sounded faraway, and she stared up at him with vague, unfocused eyes.

Hearing shouts as their pursuers’ vessels neared, Zack pulled Persia out of the boat and thrust her up onto the bank. “Get out of sight! Quickly!”

The first of Blackwell’s followers didn’t wait for their boat to touch shore but dived into the dark waters and were soon rushing Zack. He fought the two men off—knocking the first out with a hard right to the jaw, then sending the second sprawling back into the water. Before the others could be out of their boats and on him, Zack rushed up the hill.

“Persia!” he called. But she was nowhere in sight.

Although dawn was breaking, the garden of the dead was still shrouded in deep, violet shadows. Zack stood still on the path for a moment, listening for some sound while he scanned the verge of the jungle for the white glow of Persia’s robe. But she was nowhere to be seen. He hurried on toward the Towers of Silence.

“There he goes!” He heard Blackwell’s voice from the landing. “You men fan out and find her. I’ll take care of him.”

Zack glanced over his shoulder to see a white-robed figure starting up the path. Cyrus Blackwell.

“Persia,” Zack called quietly, hoping to flush her out of hiding before the others found her. “Persia, come to me. It’s Zack, darling. You’ll be safe with me.”

The man passed so close to her that Persia could have reached out a hand and touched his boots. She wanted to leap up and run from him, but her flight through the thick vegetation on the hill had left her weak and breathless. All she could do now was huddle in the bushes and hope he wouldn’t see her or hear her heart thundering in her breast. The sight of the flames, their singeing heat, was branded on her eyes. She would not be burned alive!

Who was the man? And why was he chasing her? Her mind reeled in a drugged fog of terror. She didn’t know where she was or what was happening to her. She remembered only the cave and the fire and death waiting to consume her. There had been many men and women there—all staring at her, all waiting to see her die. She had been so afraid. She was still afraid. Her mind refused to function.

The man who had stolen her away moved on up the hill. Bending a branch out of the way, she stared after him. There, beyond his dark silhouette, looming like five glowing castle turrets in the first rays of the sun, were the Towers of Silence. How did she know what these buildings were called? She frowned. She had no idea. But she associated peace and rest and safety with the great structures. She felt suddenly drawn to them. Slowly, carefully, she made her way through the underbrush that bordered the path, edging ever closer to her sanctuary.

Cyrus Blackwell had Hazzard in sight. There was no need to hurry. There was no place he could go. As for Persia, his men would find her. Her purification might have been interrupted for the time being, but she would shed her many sins before the sun set on the peaks of Elephanta. She would enter Nirvana with him. Only then would her baptism be complete and her soul be one with that of the universe. She would be his wife at last.

“Come to me, wife!” he called. “This is our time. Your sins shall be purged and your spirit made holy. But only I can help you. He will only sink you deeper into the depths. But together you and I can enter heaven.”

Both Persia and Zack heard Blackwell’s words. Hypnotized by his voice, Persia stood erect in the garden and started toward the white-robed figure.

“No, Persia!” Zack yelled. “Don’t listen to him.”

He and Blackwell both spied her at the same instant. Seeing the other man head toward her, Zack charged into the jungle forest to try to reach her first.

But when Persia spied the two men rushing toward her, the terror gripped her with new force. She could trust neither of them. Death was waiting for her somewhere in the night. She would only be safe if she could reach one of the great towers. Forcing herself to run, she made her way up the hill—stumbling, groping, gasping. At last, she reached the smooth, white wall. She clung to it for a moment, trying to catch her breath. The surface felt cool and soothing against her fevered cheek.

“Save me! Oh, please, save me!” she moaned.

She opened her eyes and glanced up. Circling high above, dark against the dawn pink of the sky, great birds swooped on widespread wings. She could feel the powerful thunder of their strokes in her heart.

“Thank you!” she sobbed. “You’ve come.”

Never taking her eyes from the black creatures wheeling overhead, she climbed the steps slowly. The birds swooped lower, eyeing her curiously.

“Come to me,” she called, raising outstretched arms to them. “Take me away from here.”

“Persia, no!” The man’s voice seemed to come from far away.

She glanced down. He was only a dark speck below her, but he was still a threat. She must coax the great birds down to fly her to safety before he reached her. Then she spotted a second figure, approaching the man who had called to her. He held a heavy sandlewood log in his hands, raised over the other man’s head. She knew that awful thing. It had come from her own funeral pyre. She couldn’t watch.

With her eyes tightly shut, she stumbled on the steps and fell to the grate at the top of the Tower of Silence. She heard the flapping of wings just over her head. She could feel the wind of flight all about her. She smiled. Soon they would come to her. Soon now she would be free. No pain. No fire.

She opened her eyes one last time. The dark-clad figure lay stretched out on the ground far below. For some reason—she couldn’t think why—the sight pained her. The man in white robes was nowhere to be seen. It didn’t matter. She closed her eyes again. The wings were drawing nearer. It would be over soon. They would take her away.

“Get away, you filthy scavengers!”

Startled by the sound of the familiar and dreaded voice so near at hand, Persia sat up, staring. It was the man in white. He meant to hurt her. He lunged at her, but she scrambled away. She felt herself slipping through the grate and grabbed for something to hang on to. When she gripped the edge of his robe, it tore away from his body. He screamed in terror.

The Parsees’ feathered morticians swooped lower. The time was wrong for feeding at this place. Still, hunger knew no hour. There was not the odor of decay about the feeding area. Still, the food was there—uncovered—only waiting to be devoured.

The instant that Persia’s hand ripped the robe from Blackwell’s body, flinging him at the same time to his back on the grate, the soaring birds of prey had their signal. They swooped to the feast.

The largest of the creatures, attracted by his wide, staring eyes, flew straight for Blackwell’s face.

The next to the last sight Cyrus Blackwell saw was a set of curved talons coming straight for his face. The last was the unblinking red eye of the vulture, staring into his, before the talons found their mark.

Screams of agony echoed down through the Towers of Silence to where Persia clung to the robe, swinging above the bone-strewn pit. The shock jolted her to her senses. Over her head, black against the grate and the early-morning sky, she saw Cyrus Blackwell’s body, being quickly stripped clean by the hungry vultures. For a time she watched, aghast, as he jerked with weak spasms of the life he now held to so tremulously. He had planned to die, but not this way. Then she realized there could be no life left in the few bloody shreds of flesh left clinging to his bones. His death dance was caused by the action of the vultures’ tearing talons alone.

When his clean bones rattled down through the grate, falling about her, she screamed.

“Zack!
Zack!
For God’s sake, help me!”

She was shaking, shivering, sobbing. She had to hold on to the robe. If she slipped, she would be in the pit with
him.

Suddenly, she felt herself being raised up. Closer and closer came the sky, while a black form huddled over her.

“It’s all right now, Persia. It’s over, darling.”

“Oh, Zack!” she cried.

A moment later, she was through the grate and in his arms. His lips found hers, and he tried to reassure her tenderly. She was sure now of who she was and who he was. And she knew that she loved him with everything in her.

So why did she turn away from his kiss? Why did his body pressed to hers repulse her?

The strange terror that filled her took away her will to struggle against him. He took her lips and kissed her deeply. And finally, she surrendered to the weakness she had fought for hours, letting herself slip away beyond any man’s reach.

Carefully, Zack lifted Persia in his arms and started down the narrow stairs of the Towers of Silence.

“Everything will be all right now, darling,” he whispered, but she never heard.

Part Four
1848
Chapter Thirty

Persia stood at her window, staring out over Gay Street and feeling desperately lonely. A light snow was falling, clothing the village in the same pristine white that she now wore. The mellow voices of a group of carolers drifted up to her. It was Christmas Eve—a time of joy and peace and love. And it was the hour of her wedding to Zack.

Why did she feel so desolate—so removed from everything and everyone in the world?

She loved him; she knew she did. And she had waited a long, long time for this moment. But the old fear remained. She needed his tenderness, yet she withdrew from it. It wasn’t that she wanted to turn away from him. During her time with Cyrus Blackwell, something had been taken from her. What she had offered Zack so willingly and happily before was no longer hers to give. It was almost as if the evil missionary had managed to take a part of her to the grave with him.

She had stalled Zack as long as she could, making him wait months after their return to New England before she agreed to set a date for their marriage. She had almost hoped the time would never come. No, that was not true. Her real hope had been that things would change before the time arrived. That she would be herself again.

But nothing had changed. She was as she had been since the night in the cave on Elephanta Island, facing the funeral pyre—empty, alone, cold, and terrified for any man to come near her.

And now she must face her wedding night. She must allow him a husband’s rights. How could she bear it? Something about Cyrus Blackwell had turned her away from physical love. She had not even been able to let her father kiss her upon her return home.

She jumped, startled by the knock at her bedroom door.

“It’s time, Persia,” Europa called. “Everyone is waiting in the parlor.”

“I’m coming,” she answered with a sinking feeling in her heart.

The parlor of the Whiddington home was decked with holly and evergreens. A roaring fire warmed the large room, casting its golden glow over the smiling faces of the guests. Asa Whiddington beamed at his younger daughter as he led her to her waiting groom. He thought that there hadn’t been another bride as lovely since he’d married his own Victoria.

Persia wore the same gown her mother and grandmother had worn before her—all antique white satin and
point d’Angleterre
lace. Asa thought back to another wedding that seemed long ago. That had not been a happy occasion like this one. This time there was no black veil hiding the bride’s beautiful face, only a diaphanous cloud of white cascading from a crown of pearls.

Then the bride’s father frowned slightly. Maybe it was the veil that made Persia’s eyes look less than sparkling. In spite of the fact that she now had the man she loved, he had sensed some underlying tension between them ever since their return from India. They had told him nothing about the trip that could have cast a permanent gloom over the two of them. Granted, losing First Mate Barry had been most regrettable. But men died at sea. It had always been so; it would always be. And the business with Blackwell had been shocking. But that part of his daughter’s life was all behind her now.

No, whatever was bothering Persia and Zack, it was something far more personal and tragic. He knew she had lived as the missionary’s wife for a time. Blackwell’s death had been sudden and violent. But surely she could not be mourning a man she hardly knew. She had loved Zachariah Hazzard for a long, long time.

Zack, too, was aware of Persia’s gloom on a day when she should be shining bright. And he guessed the cause. He had lived with it since that terrible morning at the Towers of Silence—the first time she had turned away from his kiss. It was almost as if she now existed within the sheltering walls of her own personal tower of silence.

She had allowed him to take her to Calcutta, back to the ship. And there had been no argument when he declared that he still intended to marry her, as soon as possible. But that had not been soon enough for him. Even after they returned to New England, he had been forced to wait—watching her carefully and treating her with all the gentle patience at his command.

It was as if a part of her had died during the time she was on Elephanta Island. Zack loved her still—more than ever—but he was allowed to do so only from a distance. His slightest touch made her shiver with dread. An attempt at a kiss brought tears. And anything more was beyond imagining.

She had been a very sick woman for most of the voyage home. Whatever had happened during her time with Blackwell had taken its toll on her. And the horror she had been a part of at the Towers of Silence had all but driven her over the brink. For a time, Zack had feared that she would never be well enough to marry, that she might not even live.

But once they returned to Maine—familiar surroundings and well-loved relations—she had come around. She was almost herself again. She even set the date for their wedding. But she had yet to allow Zack the slightest intimacy. She loved him well, but from a chaste distance. And now they were about to exchange their solemn vows, while upstairs the bridal bed awaited. What would she do? And how would he handle it if she refused him?

“Zachariah, my dear brother-in-law-to-be, won’t you join us?” The fetchingly plump Europa—ruffled from head to toe in Christmas-plaid taffeta—brought Zack out of his musings.

“Yes, I believe it is time,” agreed the lanky young minister who had taken Brother Osgood’s place when the old preacher passed on during the summer. “Please join hands.”

“Persia?” Zack whispered, offering his hand.

She hesitated for such a long time that a nervous rustling passed through the parlor. Seton coughed, and several of the young Holloways shuffled their boots restlessly.

When Persia finally placed her fingers in Zack’s palm, her touch was so light that he could hardly feel it. Only his long desire for contact and the chill of her fingertips actually told him they were joined, flesh to flesh.

Her voice trembled the slightest bit as she made her responses. She stared up into Zack’s eyes the whole time, her own brittle blue and wide with something akin to terror. Zack both longed for and dreaded the moment about to come.

“You may kiss the bride, Captain Hazzard,” the minister intoned solemnly.

Europa bustled forward to lift Persia’s veil. Zack stared down into her face, caressing her tenderly with his dark, troubled eyes. She was so beautiful—more so now than ever. Her skin was like translucent china from all she had been through and her long recovery afterward. He watched her lips part as if she meant to speak.

“What, darling?” he whispered.

She closed her eyes and two tears squeezed from their corners. He started to draw away at the sight of them, but she pursed her lips and lifted them bravely for his kiss. He met her pale lips gently, almost hesitantly. She offered no response. She neither kissed him back nor tried to refuse him. Suddenly, a coldness far more frightening than what he had felt before gripped him. Was this the way it would be? She would allow him to take, while she gave nothing in return? He couldn’t live with that.

The supper reception stretched on and on. Persia acted bright and gay, but her eyes told another tale as Zack watched her closely. He guessed that she was playing the bubbling bride, trying to delay the hour that they would go upstairs to be alone together. Several times already he had tried to draw her away from the table, but she had chided him affectionately, pleading to stay with her family for “only a little while longer, Zack darling.”

Finally, her own father put an end to Persia’s charade. “Well, my dear, I think we should excuse you now. The Christmas bells will be ringing in the new day soon.”

Everyone murmured agreement. Her father’s words struck pain in her heart, but there was nothing she could do. She would have to go with her husband, up to the old canopy bed where she herself had been conceived on a snowy night much like this Christmas Eve.

After saying prolonged good-nights and thank-yous to everyone, Persia hurried from the dining room, not accepting Zack’s offered arm. He followed her up the stairs and to the master bedroom, but she hesitated outside the door.

“You go on in, darling,” she said to her husband. “I need to get some things from my old room.”

His facegrim at this new ploy, Zack answered, “Whatever you say, Persia, but don’t be long.”

“Only a moment,” she promised.

But her moment stretched on and on. Zack shed his formal clothes and put on a dressing gown. He poured a brandy, lit a cigar, sat down, stood up, paced the room.

“Dammit, what’s she doing?”

By the time she came through the door, he was on his way to fetch her.

“Persia, where have you been?”

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting, Zack.” Her voice was a thin wisp of breathy fear. “I had trouble unfastening the buttons on my wedding gown.”

He looked at her. She was dressed in a long nightgown that covered her, chin to toes, with another wrapper covering that. So, she’d escaped to her own room to undress and smother herself in this shroud-thing—the perfect defense against him.

“You have a
husband
now to undo your buttons, Persia.” He sounded angry and he knew it. But he couldn’t help it. He was.

“Please don’t be cross with me, Zack. It’s been such a long, tiring day. Why don’t we just crawl into bed and go to sleep?”

Disappointment gripped him—so deep and total that it left him feeling weak. He could not let her do this tonight. They had to set things straight between them…
now.
But he curbed his temper. He would have to be gentle with her.

Zack reached out and took his wife’s hand before she had time to draw it away.

“Persia, come sit by the fire with me for a while. We need to talk.”

She tried to resist. He would have none of it. He was determined to be gentle, but he would be firm as well.

“Zack, I really am exhausted.”

He drew her down to the couch next to him and put a warm brandy into her hands. “Drink this. It will make you feel better.”

He smiled crookedly, convinced that the only reason she accepted the brandy was so that she could take her hand from his.

“Well? What did you want to talk about, Zack?” she asked.

This wasn’t going to be as easy as he had hoped. He didn’t know how to approach the subject of her time as Blackwell’s prisoner on Elephanta. He didn’t like to think about what she must have been through, and certainly it wouldn’t be easy for her to discuss. Undoubtedly she had been misused by Blackwell. But it had to come out in the open, they had to clear the air between them if they were ever to have a real marriage.

“Persia, I want you to tell me what’s wrong. We’re not in India any longer. You’re in no danger. And anything you say will be strictly between the two of us.”

She stiffened beside him. He could almost feel her guard coming up. He turned to read her expression, but a shadow had descended over her face.

“I don’t even want to think about that time, much less talk about it. It’s cruel of you to bring it up, Zack, especially on our wedding night.”

“Are we going to have a wedding night, Persia?”

His point-blank question stunned her. She looked away from him, into the fire.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” she whispered.

He took the brandy snifter from her hand and set it on the table. Then he gently brought her palm to his lips—breathing over her flesh, kissing it, finally touching one t throbbing spot with the tip of his tongue. Her fingers tensed in his.

“You know what I mean, darling.
I want to make love to you.
Am I going to be allowed that privilege?”

“Tonight?”
she asked quietly, still not looking at him.

“Yes. Starting right this minute, in fact. I’ve been very patient, Persia. The last time we made love we were in Bombay. It was before—”

“No! Don’t say it!” she cried, and suddenly she was sobbing.

He pulled her to his chest and tried to soothe her, but it seemed that all her pent-up emotions from months and years past were bent on release.

“It’s all right, darling. Go ahead and cry,” he soothed. “When you’re finished, we’ll talk it all out.”

Even though his heart went out to her in her pain and grief, Zack felt a certain amount of elation that she allowed him to hold her. This was a first step, small as it was.

Persia was aware of his arms around her. She wanted them there. Suddenly her crying turned from pain to joy. For the very first time in so long, she didn’t feel repelled by Zack’s touch. She was frightened—yes!—but it was not the awful terror she had experienced for the past months. All the guilt and pain and fear of her time with Cyrus Blackwell seemed to be slipping away. Finally, her sobs subsided.

“Better?” he asked.

She wiped her cheeks and offered him a wan smile. “Yes. I think so.”

“Can you talk about it now? You don’t have to worry about shocking me. I know you were his wife. And I know that whatever you were forced to do, you had no choice in the matter.”

Suddenly, she wanted Zack to hold her and to kiss her and—yes, glory be!—to make love to her. But she would have to make him understand first.

“I was never his wife… .”

He frowned, not understanding.

“I was his legal wife, yes. But there was no love between us. I’ve never been truly married until this very night. Someday I’ll tell you everything. But not now… please, not now, darling.” She looked down at their clasped hands suddenly, unable to meet his intense gaze.

“You mean he never forced himself on you?” There was an unmistakable note of relief in Zack’s voice.

“Well… yes and no,” she stammered.

“Persia, you’re talking in riddles. He had you on that island for a long time. What did he do to you? Something terrible happened. I know because you’ve been so long coming out of it.”

“Zack, you mustn’t hate me.” Her eyes pleaded with him.

He hugged her. “Never, darling!
Never!”

“But what I have to tell you sounds so bizarre. I don’t know even how to begin.”

“Slowly, darling. We have all night… a lifetime.”

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