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Authors: Liz Carlyle

The Bride Wore Pearls

BOOK: The Bride Wore Pearls
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The Bride Wore Pearls

Liz Carlyle

 

Prologue

 

If it were done when ’tis done,

then ’twere well It were done quickly.

William Shakespeare,
Macbeth

 

Newgate Prison, 1834

 

I
t was a fine day for a hanging. In the City of London, the spring air held a promise of the bucolic summer to come, and high above the gallows, the spires of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate melted like warm cream into the clouds of an azure sky.

The beautiful weather had, of course, brought out a larger-than-usual mob of gawkers and hawkers, all of whom were now wedged cheek-by-jowl together, enjoying a capital lark. This, even before the condemned had been dragged out to pray and to plead and—if the crowd was lucky—perhaps even to piss himself.

Above the rumble of the crowd came the cries of the pie-men and the orange girls, along with the perky toots of a hornpipe wielded by a swarthy sailor who roamed the crowd, a miniature monkey perched upon one shoulder. Lastly came the newsboys, waving their papers and shouting out headlines as grisly as they were salacious, for today was the day to recount every detail of Lord Percy Peveril’s brutal murder and all its overwrought aftermath.

After all, what more could one wish for in such a cautionary tale of angst and woe? A duke’s son cut coldly down by a notorious and dashing card sharp, leaving his noble father to vow revenge. This followed by a suicide, a trial, and a beautiful fiancée twice collapsed with grief. Truly, for the pressmen of Fleet Street, did opportunity knock any louder?

Just then, the door onto the platform high above flew open and the thickset hangman trundled out. The aforesaid fiancée shrieked, then collapsed—yet a third time—against her sister’s shoulder on a wretched sob. For months now, Miss Elinor Colburne had been bravely proclaiming her intention to stand stalwart to the end—though this was not, in point of fact,
her
end. And never mind the fact that prior to this drawn-out melodrama, the lady had never stood stalwart in the face of anything more catastrophic than a badly knotted hair ribbon.

Around her, however, the crowd had surged on a collective gasp, and the condemned—the man whose end this was truly meant to be—lifted his chin and stepped unhesitatingly onto the platform, coatless and hatless, his thick, dark curls ruffling lightly in the breeze. His hands were bound tightly behind him, so tight that his fine brocade waistcoat was drawn taut across a broad width of chest, displaying an expanse of costly linen that had once been starched and snowy white but had long ago gone gray with the filth of Newgate.

A black-garbed clergyman by the name of Sutherland was introduced. A grim-faced Scot, the fellow stepped to the edge of the platform, a Bible already open across his palm, to rattle off a few perfunctory passages about death and forgiveness, followed by a fiery invective on the inherent evils of gaming.

Then, as was the custom, the condemned was invited to speak his last words.

The broad-chested young man gave a succinct nod and stepped forward, dropping a steady, crystal-blue gaze directly upon Elinor Colburne. It was as if he knew to an inch precisely where the lady stood in the silent, suspenseful throng.

“Miss Colburne.” His powerful, upper-class voice held a hint of northern broadness. “I did your Percy no harm, save fairly relieve him of a few hundred pounds. And eventually, I’ll prove it. To you, by God, and to every man-jack standing in this mob of inhumanity.”

At that, the hangman uttered an irritated oath. The bound man was yanked impatiently back from the platform’s edge. In an instant, the black bag was thrown over his head, and the noose jerked taut. The entire crowd drew one great, collective breath. Then, with a mighty yank, the lever was thrown and the platform dropped, dangling the body like a marionette.

The crowd exhaled, then broke into a mélange of jeers, tears, and raucous applause.

Elinor Colburne released her sister’s arm, then fell to her knees, collapsing on a bone-wracking sob into the filth of the street.

The time to stand stalwart was, apparently, at an end.

“There, there now, Ellie.” Her sister knelt to embrace her, murmuring softly into her hair. “Papa and Lord Percy are avenged, just as Mr. Napier promised. Come, dear, ’tis over. This terrible thing is done.”

But it was not over.

And—did any of them but know it—the terrible thing was far, far from done.

Chapter 1

 

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare,
Richard II

 

The Docklands, 1848

 

T
he English aristocracy held sacred two tenets; firstly, that they were born to rule by right of blood, and secondly, that a man’s home was his castle. The Scots, however, being a more pragmatic race, believed only that blood was thicker than water and that a man’s castle was his home only until some avaricious Englishman laid siege in an attempt to steal it. In which case the castle was more apt to become someone’s tomb—the Englishman’s, it was to be hoped.

But those who ventured from that scepter’d isle, that precious stone set in the silver sea, quickly learned that once one was far enough beyond it, blood mattered less than sheer survival, and home became something one had to haul round in a traveling trunk. This was particularly so for the adventurers of the East India Company, who, try as they might to forge a Britannia-in-the-East, never quite succeeded, for the Hindustan would not be tamed into home. And sometimes
she
tamed
them
.

The Scots, however, accustomed as they were to the vagaries of fate, struggled less with the harsh new reality that was India and succeeded admirably, for a Scot either went home rich or, like a Spartan fallen in battle, went home on his shield. In the early years, some assimilated quite thoroughly; forging treaties, heeding the customs, and occasionally taking to wife native women who in turn bore them fine, sturdy children. And a few simply never went home again, choosing instead to simply stay in India and die there.

And die damned inconveniently, too.

That, at least, was the considered opinion of Lady Anisha Stafford, who laid aside her thoughts and her needlework one hot Calcutta afternoon to snap open the thick fold of letter-paper a passing servant had thrust into her hand, only to discover her own harsh new reality. Not only was her rich Scottish father now in his grave but her impecunious English husband had followed him, and rather more swiftly than one might have wished. The fog and the sand of Sobraon’s bloody battlefield had swallowed up the arrogant man, and Anisha had become, in short, that most pitiable of creatures—a woman alone.

A woman alone in a land that did not really quite claim her—and with two fatherless children to raise, along with a young scapegrace of a brother who had become almost dangerously charming. And over the coming weeks that turned to long months, as her husband’s body was borne home and his affairs slowly settled, it came clear to Anisha that there was little left for them in India. That this time it fell to her to pack up her traveling trunk and forge a new and better life for her family’s sake.

But Britain, too, was a land that mightn’t claim her, for like so many of her kind who came out of India, Lady Anisha was neither fish nor fowl. Her elder brother, though, had found London to his liking. He had begun his life anew. And when he wrote insisting she bring the boys to England, Lady Anisha allowed herself a good, long cry, then began the process of swaddling her family’s home in holland cloth and pensioning off most of the servants.

Still, a nagging uncertainty followed her over what felt like half the seven seas, and it was still threading through her uneasy dreams one miserably cold dawn when she was roused from a restless slumber by a harsh, scrubbing sound that vibrated through the walls of her cabin.

Startled fully awake, she lashed out blindly with one hand, seizing hold of her wooden berth as her eyes blinked, adjusting to the low light of the lantern that swung from its hook, casting wild shadows up the cabin walls.

Land?

Clambering down in agitation, Anisha made her way to the small aft window and threw back the muslin curtain. Through the haze of salt rime, a seemingly endless row of oily yellow lights winked tauntingly back at her.

A shoreline. No, a
riverbank
.

And beyond it, in a dusky gray sky, one could just make out a hint of the pink, wintry sunrise to come. Lady Anisha cursed beneath her breath.

Just then, the door flew open. Janet burst in, wild red hair sprouting from beneath her nightcap. “Lud, ma’am!” said the servant. “Reckon this’ll be London?”

“Having never seen it, I could not say,” Anisha grumbled, already hastening about the postage stamp of a cabin, yanking on her wrapper as she went. “But it assuredly isn’t Calcutta. Janet, you were to wake me at—what was it? Gravesend?”

“Aye, and how, pray, was I to do it, ma’am, when no one knocked me up?” she squawked, seizing Anisha’s portmanteau and throwing it open on the mattress. “And me telling that fool of a cabin boy, plain as day
three times
last night, that I was to be woke soon as we entered the river!”

The servant began to hurl stockings and undergarments from the drawer beneath the berth. “And February’s wicked cold here, my lady,” she added, “so mind you put on your warmest drawers. For my part, I’ll be so happy to get off this infernal boat, I believe I shall dance a jig.”

“And I believe I shall partner you.” Anisha tossed out her comb and hairpins from her dressing case. “Go, Janet. I can fend for myself. Hurry and dress. Oh—wait! Where’s Chatterjee? Did he wake Lord Lucan? The boys?”

Alarm sketched across Janet’s face. “Best check, hadn’t I?” As quickly as she’d come, the servant was gone, very nearly catching her hems in the cabin door as she flew out again.

It took Lady Anisha less then ten minutes to wash, dress, and twist up her hair. A military wife knew how to travel light and move fast. And haste was surely needed, for already Anisha could hear more scraping and thudding, the sound of cargo being hauled up from the hold. Moreover, while her elder brother had many qualities—both good
and
bad—neither tardiness nor patience was amongst them.

Oddly, though, the thought of seeing her brother Raju again after so many years apart left her a trifle unsettled. Suddenly, it seemed as if their frequent letters had not been enough. The nagging uncertainty turned to a sick, awful knot in the pit of her stomach.

What would he think of her now? Did she look too foreign? Did he look too English? Would he grow to resent her coming here? Had he changed at all during his years of grief and wanderlust? Had
she
?

Tom and Teddy assuredly had, for they had been infants. And Lucan—Luc had been but a gangling lad.

Well. Perhaps they were all going to have to grow up now.

A little ruthlessly, she stabbed the last hairpin into place, then, after an instant’s hesitation, unscrewed the tiny nose-pin from her left nostril. Though her father had disapproved, Anisha had worn it through her first confinement to ward off sickness and labor pain. After his death, she’d worn it always. To please herself. To make a statement, she supposed.

Ah, but Calcutta was far behind her now.

On a sigh, she dropped it into her traveling jewelry box with her grandmother’s pearls and her mother’s priceless kundan choker. But she felt suddenly . . . wrong. Out of place. Which she was, in a manner of speaking. She had learned long ago that removing her
phul
would not remove the Rajputra in her, nor did she wish it to.

But she did wish, for the boys’ sake, to fit in. And she wished, honestly, to ease her own transition into this frigid, water-bound empire. Yet at the same time, Anisha had grown a little weary over the years of having one foot planted here and another there; caught forever in that shifting dance between who she was and who someone else thought she ought to be.

For an instant, John’s disapproving scowl flitted across her mind. Anisha swiftly shut it out, stepped to the mirror, and let her eyes run down the bodice of her ordinary English gown, then back up again to her not-especially English face.


And when I was a child,
” Anisha whispered to herself, “
I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child
.”

But now came the time—the grievous, heartrending time—to put away childish things. Or to put away, at the very least, childhood’s comforts. For the truth was, like her elder brother, Anisha had never really been a child. And now she was, she supposed, as prepared for her first appearance in England—for her new
life
—as one could hope.

With another sigh, she began the last of her packing but on the next breath was struck with an urge to check on the boys. Together they made for a cheeky pair of monkeys and, in all fairness to Janet, not a task the girl had signed on for. But this journey had been trying for all of them. The boys had become more mischievous than usual and, by Cape Town, had already parted ways with their put-upon tutor, Teddy having laid the last straw upon the camel’s back by running the poor man’s drawers out the bowsprit.

In six short steps, Anisha reached her cabin door. Throwing it heedlessly open, she hurled herself at once against a tall, broad-shouldered slab of masculine imperviousness.

“Ho!” said the slab, who smelled of warm leather and smoky sandalwood. He steadied her with a pair of broad, ungloved hands. “Lady Anisha Stafford, I presume?”

“Oh, I beg your pardon!” Anisha blinked up at a pair of merry blue eyes, her thoughts skittering across the deck like aimless birdshot. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—that is to say—” She drew herself up and stepped back. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

It was a witless remark, of course. Beyond Raju, she knew not a soul in this cold, gray place.

With a smile as wide as his shoulders, the man dipped his head and somehow followed her from the shadows into the light of the minuscule cabin. “No, I haven’t the pleasure,” he said, his voice a low rumble in his chest, “which I now see was a tragic oversight on my part.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” she said, backing further, only to hitch up against the end of her berth.

Half inside the narrow space, the man set a shoulder to the doorframe, looking utterly relaxed. “I mean that I should have come all the way to India myself had Ruthveyn troubled to tell me how breathtaking his little sister was,” he said, the grin deepening. “On the other hand, I had been until rather recently . . . well, let us call it a
guest
of the Crown, so my travel has been curtailed.” He thrust out a powerful, lightly callused hand. “Rance Welham at your service, ma’am.”

“Oh.” Anisha’s eyes dropped to the ornate gold pin nestled in the folds of his cravat. “
Oh
. Sergeant Welham!” Relief and recognition came as one, and she shook his hand. “A pleasure, I’m sure. But my brother—?”

“Detained with
Fraternitas
business.” At her questioning look, he continued. “Just the usual trouble in Paris. Guizot’s about to be thrown out, and the Gallic confederation cannot decide if we are friend or foe. Regrettably, Lord Ruthveyn’s our only diplomat.”

“Ah.” Anisha wondered if those clear blue eyes ever stopped twinkling. Or was it more of a dangerous glitter? It really was hard to tell.

“Which is to say,
Ruthveyn
regrets it,” the man went on. “I, however, do not. And since I’m the brawn rather than the brain of the organization, he’s sent me, a brace of footmen, and three fine coaches to bid you welcome and fetch you home to Mayfair.”

Home
. To Mayfair.

Wherever that was.

“And so quickly,” she murmured.

“Oh, we’ve had a rider on watch down at Dartford for a se’night, ma’am,” he said, coming away from the door. “I do believe Ruthveyn is anxious to see his little sister.”

Sergeant Welham was still smiling and twinkling and looking almost dangerously handsome. Anisha knew a little of the man from her brother’s letters, but nothing to prepare her for such an onslaught of male charm.

His elegant hat tucked into the crook of his arm, Welham displayed a tousled pile of dark curls and a pair of deep dimples to either side of a mouth so full it clearly belonged on a sybarite. Worse, the height and width of him literally filled the cabin.

“Now, my girl,” he said, stepping into the tiny space and somehow sketching her an elegant bow, “have you a lady’s maid hereabouts?”

“N-no, it’s been a rather trying journey,” Anisha uttered. “I lost her in Lisbon.”

At last some of the flirtatious glitter faded from his eyes. “Fever, eh? Tragic shipboard hazard.”

“Oh, no.” Anisha shook her head. “I fear the tedium unsettled her brain, and she eloped with Lord Lucan’s valet.”

His grin returned. “Ho, marriage! A true tragedy, then.”

“I fear you cannot know the half of it,” said Anisha dryly, “for you’ve not seen Luc’s valet.”

“What, bad-tempered? Drunken?” He winked at her. “I’ve been both, from time to time.”

“No, bald and pocked,” said Anisha. “And
prosy
.”

Welham laughed richly. “Well, no accounting for taste, is there? Good luck to ’em. Now, have you something I might carry up? This small trunk, perhaps?”

BOOK: The Bride Wore Pearls
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