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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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Asa offered her a weary nod. Who didn’t know? Birdie Blackwell never started or ended one of her tiresome bouts of gossip without reference to her saintly brother. Somehow Asa found this transformation of the man hard to explain and harder to visualize. The Reverend Cyrus Blackwell remained in his memory as a troublesome and sometimes vicious youngster who had stolen merchandise from his father’s general store on Main Street and tortured the town’s population of cats, dogs, and birds. There was even some talk that as a young man he had torched the home of a woman who refused him. The girl and her aging mother had died in the flames. The fire was never explained. Soon afterward, Cyrus Blackwell left the area to enter the seminary. Since that time, he had never returned to Quoddy Cove. But even if the man were innocent of that crime, with a sister like Birdie, Asa could understand why he stayed away.

“Now, mind you, I’m not one to cast dispersions,” Birdie went on, “but you know how the people hereabouts will talk. If Miss Persia were mine to bring up, I’d haul her off the pond this minute, take her home for a good strapping, and lock her in her room with only her Bible for company until she’s old enough to know how to act properly in public.”

Victoria, who had been thinking that just such a course of action might be wise, took exception to someone else voicing such an opinion.

“Birdie dear, they’re only skating, and in broad view of everyone in town. I can’t see that it’s so scandalous.”

Miss Blackwell made a disapproving, clicking sound with her whale-ivory teeth. “Of course
you’re
her mother, Victoria, but no daughter of mine would make such a display of herself with a man. Mark my words, the girl wants discipline—a strong hand, well placed. Or the next thing you know, she’ll be sneaking out to meet men and doing you know what behind your backs.”

Europa snickered softly. Her father gave her a scathing look. His temper was nearing its limits.

“Please explain exactly
what
you assume our Persia will be doing in the event she decides to start
sneaking out,
as you put it, Miss Blackwell. I’d like to hear it in so many words!”

“Captain!” Victoria gasped softly, placing a restraining hand on her husband’s arm. Miss Birdie Blackwell, the town gossip, was not one to be goaded without retaliating in the meanest fashion.

“That
sort of thing doesn’t need explaining to any man, Asa Whiddington! How dare you try to embarrass a poor spinster lady who’s dedicated her whole life only to God and her dear, devout brother?” She shook a warning finger at the captain once more. “You just mind that red-haired wanton you’ve raised up. I’m warning you, she’s one of the devil’s own!”

Before Asa Whiddington could calm himself enough to frame a suitable reply, Birdie Blackwell summoned her servants with an angry howl and was off to sow her seeds of discontent elsewhere.

“The bloody old bitch!” Asa mumbled, clenching his fingers, which he very much wished were around the woman’s wrinkled throat.

“Asa, please,” Victoria whispered. “Europa will hear you.”

But their elder daughter was no longer beside them.

Zack whirled Persia about and soon had her in his arms, facing him as if she were a dancing partner. Immediately, she saw his intent. He moved them into the figures of an ice waltz that set her skirts swaying and her head reeling. So precise were his movements that she could almost imagine the accompanying music as their blades sliced neat patterns in the coldness beneath their skates.

“Watch yourself,” he warned, steering her away from an area marked with a hand-painted sign that read
THIN ICE
.

“I’ve heard of ladies wearing through their dancing slippers in an evening, Zack, but I may be the first to wear out a pair of skates.”

“Do you want to stop?”

Persia threw back her head so suddenly that her hood fell away, releasing her shining, fire-colored hair to whip in the cold wind. “Never!” she cried. “I want to go on and on. I’ve never felt so wonderful!”

His hand tightened on her waist and he drew her closer, whispering into her free-blowing hair, “You certainly do, Persia, more wonderful than you can imagine.”

At that moment, a scream pierced the night air. Zack whirled them to an ice-shaving stop, his brown eyes giving up their lock on his partner to scan the pond. Shouts went up from the shore, and in a moment he saw what had happened. Leaving Persia where she stood, he put wings to his skates, flying over the ice toward the warning sign they had passed moments before.

“Help! Please, save me!” came the strangled cry.

A woman had fallen through. Zack could see her arms waving. She went under—once, twice, a third time. People were rushing out onto the ice. He had to reach her and try to pull her out of the frigid water before the crowd converged around the broken place in the ice. Otherwise, their massed weight might cause a larger break and draw dozens of would-be rescuers down into the icy depths. A real disaster was in the making, and only Zachariah could avert it.

“Try to grab hold of the ice!” he yelled. “I’m coming!”

“I can’t. Help me, oh, please, I…”

The weak voice trailed off. Zack saw a gloved hand clutching the edge. Slowly, it slipped away, leaving long scratch marks in the death-white ice. He plunged forward, diving for the edge.

Persia waited only a stunned moment after Zack left her. She recognized the first cry for help and knew who had fallen through the ice. A coldness gripped her heart like none a Maine winter could produce. Europa’s life was in the hands of the man she had called “riffraff”—the man she herself
loved,
Persia realized suddenly. And he might well lose his own life attempting to save her sister.

Skating quickly after Zack, Persia arrived at the broken ice only an instant after he reached the jagged edge of the hole. She saw her drowning, half-frozen sister go under once more and then watched, stricken, as Zack plunged into the black water.

Persia’s heart was pounding. She could barely hear anything for the rush of blood in her ears. The shouts of the others on the pond came only as a dull roar from far away. She must remain calm, do whatever she could to help. That was difficult, however, with the dark patch of water yawning empty before her. Both Europa and Zack were under the surface now. If they stayed down much longer, neither of them would survive. But she couldn’t think about that.

Acting with a calm reason she was far from feeling, Persia lay down on her stomach on the ice, reaching as far out over the opening as she could. She scanned the black surface with keen eyes, alert to any movement. The reflection of the northern lights played over the water, mocking her with its beauty. Now other skaters moved closer in, ringing the broken ice to light the area with their flickering lanterns. Persia was uncomfortably aware of the cold dampness seeping through her woolen gown, but she held her prone position, ready to lend a saving hand to Zack and to her sister the moment they surfaced…
if
they surfaced.

Suddenly, the water stirred. At first, Persia thought her hopes were causing her eyes to play tricks on her. Then Zack’s head burst above the water. He spewed icy spray and shook the clinging ice crystals from his hair. A moment later, he hoisted Europa up. Her face was blue and still.

“Give us a hand here,” he called through chattering teeth.

The hand he requested was there already. He caught it, not even realizing it belonged to Persia. Together they eased Europa up over the edge of the ice. Others were there to pick the unconscious woman up and to help Zack out of the water. Persia whisked off her cape and covered his shoulders. Already Europa was wrapped in a heavy carriage robe from the Whiddington sleigh.

In moments, Persia, Zack, and Europa were in the back of the sleigh, speeding up the trail toward the house on Gay Street. Persia chafed her sister’s icy wrists while Zack held the blanket securely around Europa’s trembling shoulders with a strong arm.

“Faster, Fletcher, faster!” Asa Whiddington urged.

“You saved me. How can I ever repay you?” Europa’s voice, although shaky, held an undercurrent unmistakably dripping with feminine allure.

“I just thank God you’re alive, Miss Europa,” Zack replied.

The horses roared to a halt outside the house. Scooping Europa up in his arms Zack made for the front door, leaving Persia to see herself out of the sleigh and into the house. She refused to acknowledge the little stab of jealousy his actions caused. After all, her sister was in serious condition. Europa must be everyone’s first concern.

But she couldn’t ignore the pain a half hour later when she entered the sitting room, bringing a tray of hot broth and tea. Europa, warmed to glowing health and swathed in a lush velvet robe of emerald green, looked fetchingly petite and vulnerable reclining on the chaise lounge. Because of an error in Mrs. Whiddington’s planning, the usual decorum of the carefully run household had broken down and Europa and Zack had been left alone momentarily. Persia walked in just in time to catch her sister taking advantage of the private interlude by bestowing a kiss of gratitude squarely on Zack’s mouth.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Persia said, flustered and furious, sure that she was blushing all over.

Zack quickly pulled away but avoided meeting her eyes.

“Your sister’s much better,” he said.

“So I see.” Persia knew her voice sounded cold, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Persia dear,” Europa cooed, “how sweet of you to bring us tea. Poor Zack has had quite a night of it—first being monopolized by you all evening and then having to risk his life to save me. Why, the dear man is an exhausted saint!”

Persia’s lips tightened into a grim line. “Saint” was a far cry from what Europa had called Zack earlier.

“It was nothing, Europa. I only did what any other man would have done under the circumstances. I just happened to be the closest one to you when the accident occurred.”

Persia watched their eyes meet and felt her blood rising. She hated herself for suspecting that Europa’s plunge was no accident. But as her sister preened and simpered for the man, Persia realized that her suspicions were a devastating reality. Europa would go to any lengths to get what she wanted. And at the moment, it looked as if she wanted Zachariah Hazzard.

What did Europa have in mind? She had a dozen men dangling on her silken strings. Why was she flirting so with Persia’s beau, whom she had earlier labeled “unsuitable”?

Persia watched as Europa reached out a pale hand and placed it on Zack’s arm, at the same time lowering her long dark lashes to offer him a veiled and sensual look. “You know what my father says the Chinese believe?”

“What?” The word came out of Zack’s mouth in a husky whisper. His gaze was locked on Europa’s mesmerizing eyes.

“They say that when one person saves another’s life, the two are bound together for eternity.”

Persia had had all she could take. Slamming the tea tray down on the table, she rushed from the room. She tore for the attic stairs and the little ladder up to the widow’s walk, where she always escaped when she was upset or wanted to be alone.

The northern lights had faded and the stars in the velvet night sky blurred as she gazed up through her tears. She gripped the railing, not feeling the numbness creeping into her ungloved hands.

“Why, Europa, why?” she cried. “You can have any man.
Why Zack?”

But she knew why. It had been so between them all their lives. Whatever Persia got, her sister must have the same whether she honestly desired it or not. Suddenly Persia remembered the black-and-white puppy, and tears flooded her eyes.

She had found the half-starved mutt wandering down Main Street. Some rough boys were throwing stones at the poor creature. Europa had stood on the sidelines, urging them on in their meanness. Persia’s heart had nearly broken at the sad, helpless look in the little dog’s eyes. Throwing caution and fear for her own safety to the wind, she had rushed out into the street and shielded the mongrel pup with her own body. For her efforts, she had received a nasty cut on her forehead from a stone and a bruise on her arm from a stick Europa herself had hurled. But she had claimed the dog for her own and received his affectionate licks of gratitude.

When she took him home, her mother had grudgingly agreed to let him stay. Persia had immediately named him Salty, fed him a bowl of milk and meat scraps, and made him a bed behind the kitchen stove.

When Europa arrived home, her eyes held that hard glitter Persia had learned to read so well.

“That’s
my
dog!” Europa had told their mother. “I found him and Persia stole him from me.”

Victoria Whiddington had looked surprised. “But my dear, you don’t care at all for animals. Why would you collect such a poor stray?”

“Just because,” Europa had answered in that high-and-mighty tone of hers.

“Well, he’ll be our
family
pet,” Victoria had answered, playing the role of peacemaker.

“Very well, I’ll share,” Europa had answered smugly. “Persia, you may feed Fido, bathe him, and take care of him. But just remember, he’s really
my
dog!”

“His name’s not Fido! It’s Salty!” Persia had raged.

“Girls, girls! If this animal is going to cause trouble, we’ll just get rid of him this minute.”

For the time being, Europa had held her peace and the dog stayed. Persia had taken great pains to care for her Salty; she’d loved him dearly. She’d taken him for walks, bathed him in the wooden tub, and smuggled him choice cuts of meat from the dining room table. Dog and child were inseparable.

Then one morning when Persia had hurried down to the kitchen, she’d found Salty’s box empty. Frantically, she’d dashed about the house and then the yard, calling him by both his names, but there’d been no sign of him. She’d ran up to Europa’s room to enlist her aid in the search and found her sister still abed.

“Get up quickly! Salty’s gone!”

Europa had stretched, yawned, and bestowed a condescending smile on her. “If you are referring to Fido, I know. And there’s no need searching for him. I gave him away.”

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
12.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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