Saturday, June 25, 2011

1st Chapter Saturday -- Gemstones

Gemstones is the only Regency I've written but was a fun story to tell.

Chapter 1

Calcutta, July 1810

"Miss Nicola. Miss Nicola."

The whisper woke Nicola Gordon. Like wasps around ripe fruit, tales of native uprisings swarmed in her thoughts. She groped beneath the pillow for the knife she kept there.

The girls. She had to protect her sisters.

"Miss Nicola, wake up."

"Who?" She tried to keep fear from clogging her voice.


"What are you doing here? Where’s Papa?" Just two days ago, she had seen her father and his young native assistant off on a buying trip. Fear gripped her spine. The knife fell from her fingers.

"Your father. You must come."

"I can’t leave my sisters. What if they wake and find me gone?"

"They will be safe. Your papa needs you. We were set upon by thugs and he was hurt. I found a safe place for him to stay until I am sure we were not followed."

Nicola pushed aside the netting that enclosed the bed. She found her shoes and grabbed a dark cloak. Her heart thudded in her chest. Though she and Sarad had engaged in mischief years ago, her childhood friend had become sober and responsible. So had she.

"Where is he?"

"The place is not far." He slid open the door to the verandah. Nicola followed him to the gate in the compound wall. The aroma of wet earth rose from the garden, but outside the gates, the recent rains had failed to mask the scent of exotic flower and spices of the odor of garbage. The absence of the moon created an ominous darkness. She hurried through alleys and along streets beside her silent guide. Her thoughts conjured a thousand tragedies.

She stumbled. A groan escaped.

Sarad gripped her arm. "Be silent as the tiger stalking prey."

His warning chilled her. Who knew what would happen to an Englishwoman caught in the streets at night.

Ahead, she saw the looming shadow cast by one of the city’s many temples built to honor one of India’s multitude of gods. Why had they come here?

Sarad pulled her into a dark passageway that led into the temple. Their passing stirred the dust of the ages, musty and dank. Finally, they emerged in a torch-lit room. She followed her friend to a recessed alcove.

"Papa!" The blood-stained bandages around his chest and head alarmed her. "Papa, oh, Papa." She knelt on the stone floor beside him.

His dark eyes were unfocused. His skin felt hot.

"The eye. Siva. The eye."

"I don’t understand."

"Nicola. Must warn. Must tell."

"She is here, Sahib Gordon."

Nicola gripped her father’s hand. The flickering torchlight revealed his pain-filled features. "Papa, I will take you home and see to your wounds."

He took a shuddering breath. "Must leave Calcutta."

"Where will we go?" She couldn’t think of leaving. Calcutta was home.

"To England. Ian Grey will send an escort." He gasped a breath. "Your grandmother and Denmere. Old Earl dead. Marry the new. Distant cousin."

His words shocked her nearly as much as her memories. "My grandmother did not protect Mama. I don’t want to marry and live with strangers." Why was he saying this? He would get better and until then, she could care for her sisters. For ten years, since her mother’s death, this had been the case.

His fingers tightened around hers. "You must. Danger for you. For sisters." He struggled to sit up. "Your knowledge. Gems."

Fresh blood seeped through the dried stains on the bandages. "Rest, Papa." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I cannot leave you."

"Protect sisters."

She chewed her lower lip. "I will keep them safe."

He sank back. "Promise. Marry Denmere."

She couldn’t say the words. "Papa."

He pressed a velvet pouch into her hand. "For you and sisters. Not Fergus. Now go."

Though she thought about disobeying, she kissed his cheek. As she and Sarad left the alcove, tears cascaded down her cheeks and blurred her sight. She stopped to wipe her eyes and stifled a gasp.

Torchlight illuminated statues and wall carvings of men and women engaged in activities she had read of in the Sanskrit manuscripts her teacher had given her. Her eyes widened in astonishment. She hadn’t believed the human body could assume such convoluted positions.

Sarad grasped her arm. "We must go."

His whisper broke the spell. She tore her gaze from the figures that fascinated and repelled. Her cheeks burned as though she stood beneath the mid-day sun. She followed Sarad into the dark passageway.

* * * *

Drew Barlow, Earl of Denmere, slouched on the brocade sofa and crossed his legs at the ankles. His highly polished Hessians gleamed in the light from the fire. He stared at the flames that danced and sent sparks flying up the chimney.

"What does an impoverished earl do?" He addressed his question to the portrait above the chimney piece. To restore the estates pillaged by his predecessor, marriage to an heiress with a considerable fortune and probably a father in trade was essential. While some members of the ton would look askance at his choice, his family had created enough scandals to make the taint of trade a mere blemish.

He groaned. His mother’s passionate nature, his father’s drunken behavior, the late earl’s obsession with gaming. All played a part in his need to wed and his antipathy toward marriage.

A log fell and sent a rain of sparks flying. The Dowager Countess of Denmere was the only woman he respected. His need to marry money was as much for her as for the estates and to pay the debts left by his distant cousin.

Aldora had rescued him from a drunk and abusive father. She had seen to his education, and thought not related to him other than by marriage, had treated him like a son. She deserved the comforts he couldn’t afford to give her.

The library door opened to reveal his host. Drew’s London house had been rented, and for the past two weeks, he’d been a guest in his friend’s Mayfair townhouse.

Tristan Atwell, Duke of Cairnton, strode into the room. Only a white shirt relieved the stark black of his riding clothes. He held a crop in one hand and leaned against the Adam’s mantelpiece to study Drew. "Town is a bit thin of company these days."

Drew nodded. "I should have come in March but I had a dozen problems to untangle."

"I have the acquaintance of a wealthy widow who would favor an earl as a second husband. Would you like me to arrange an introduction?"

Drew shook his head. "A widow is used to controlling her own fortune and bestows her favors where she will."

Tristan lifted a crystal decanter and filled a glass with port. "A loan? My pockets are deep."

Drew considered the essential purchases needed to put the estates in working order and shook his head. "They’re not bottomless. I didn’t come to town to drag you into my financial problems."

"Let me have your cattle. A team of grays might lighten my reputation."

"And ruin your image." Drew chuckled. "Why not one of whites?"

Tristan shrugged, "You make being a friend difficult."

Drew looked up. Would Tristan, who always had blunt to spare, understand the need to pull himself from the River Tick? With an infusion of a goodly sum, the farms and herds would bring a profit. "Tattersall’s will do the honors. Having me as your guest is enough."

Tristan shook his head. "Anyone who contemplates marriage is either a fool or desperate."

"I plead guilty to both conditions." Tristan’s raised eyebrow and sardonic expression made Drew laugh. "I do what I must. What do you hear from Michael and Niall?"

"From Niall, nothing."

"I’m sure he’s in the thick of action. He was always one to love a fight. And Michael?"

Tristan’s stance relaxed. "He’s awaiting the birth of his heir or heiress. Never thought he’d be the first caught in the parson’s mousetrap." He turned from the window. "What say you join me for an evening at Eugenie’s? Her charming cousin, the fair Janine, frequently asks about you."

"Another time." Drew followed his friend to the door.

While women looked on him with favor, he seldom accepted their invitations to dally. To surrender was to flirt with the loss of control, something he couldn’t afford. Too often, he’d seen what happened to a man who gave in to his passions.
A footman approached. "Your Grace, a message for the Earl has arrived. His man’s in the kitchen and awaits an answer."

Drew accepted the note. As he read the contents, he frowned.

"Bad news?"

"She wants me to come home. She has received a letter concerning something I must attend to at once."

"Another demand for money from some tradesman?"

Drew’s casual shrug belied a deep sense of frustration that threatened to drag him to the depths. In the year since his distant cousin’s death, there had been many such demands. "The note is vague and so unlike her. I fear the news has overset her. I’ll leave at once."

* * * *

The tapping at her bedroom door roused Aldora, Dowager Countess of Denmere, from a reverie. For a moment, she felt the strange blend of sorrow and joy she’d felt when she’d read the letter from Ian Grey. She reached for a woolen wrapper. Moonlight shimmered around the edges to the partially open draperies and sent a path of light to the door. She turned the knob.

Greene, the elderly butler, stood in the hall. "My lady, the Earl has arrived. He’s supping in the library."

"Thank you."

"Do you wish me to wait and go down with you?"

She shook her head. With too few servants remaining at the manor house, the stoop-shouldered man did more than his share of work. "There’s no need. Go to your bed."
After he left, she lit a taper and picked up the letter. Before leaving the room, she read the words again. This time, she held her tears inside. If Drew saw she’d been weeping, he would find a way to blame himself. A habit she believed stemmed from the way his father had heaped the coals of his own failures on Drew’s head.
Holding the candlestick high, she descended the broad and curving staircase. The study door was closed. She tapped lightly.

Drew stood behind a battered desk and held his hands toward the flames in the fireplace. Light from candles on the mantelpiece made his hair appear as black as lacquered ware from the Orient. His gray jacket molded the muscles grown firm from his labor on the estates these past two years.

She crossed the room. He turned. His eyes, the color of fine Persian turquoise, showed concern. "Aunt Aldora, are you all right?"

The unofficial title he’d bestowed on her years ago brought a rush of warmth and love. She placed the candle on the desk. "I never meant to give you fright, but I received a letter --"

"Demanding payment of yet another debt we have no way to prove is false." His hands tightened on her shoulders. "Damn him for leaving you in such a state."

Aldora stepped away. "The letter concerns another matter."

"And that is?"

"Sorrow and hope."

He slumped on a chair behind the battered desk he’d brought from the estate manager’s office. For years until it had been sold, a magnificent oak piece had graced the room. "Whatever do you mean?"

She opened the letter. "This is from Duncan Gordon of India. He rescued Alice and married her. Drew, I have three granddaughters." Joy radiated from her eyes and filled her voice.

"How do you know this isn’t a trick to foist some merchant’s chits on you so they can be presented to the ton? News of your daughter’s flight were wide-spread."

She shook her head. "He mentions things only Alice knew. And he sent me this." She held a locket. "I gave it to her on her twelfth birthday. She always wore it."

"And now this merchant sends his daughters so you can bear the expense of them. How, when we can barely feed and clothe ourselves?" He scowled.

"Why are you so cynical? My son-in-law wants his daughters away from India. He suggests you marry the eldest girl and become guardian of the younger ones. They stand to have substantial fortunes."

Drew walked to the window that looked into the rear courtyard of the H-shaped house. He pulled aside the musty draperies and stared at the night sky. What else could he be but cynical? He had land he couldn’t sell, houses he couldn’t repair, and people dependent on him he couldn’t help.

Had Duncan Gordon married Aldora’s daughter? How could he be sure the girls were what they said?

"Perhaps he recently learned Alice is the daughter of an earl and wishes to use your position to see her daughters marry well."

"I don’t believe that’s the reason. With the dowries mentioned in the letters, the girls can marry for love."

"Love is a dream." The words emerged clipped and cold. He’d never understood how such a vague emotion could turn a man or a woman into a fool. He remembered the many times he’d heard his mother cry about her love for his father. Then her love for another man had caused her to abandon her family.

He heard the rustle of Aldora’s skirts and inhaled the sweet smell of lavender. "He heard of Edgar’s death. He knows about the mountain of debts and how hard you have worked to discharge them."

Drew turned. "Then why hasn’t he written before?"

"Before Alice died, he promised he would protect her daughters from their grandfather’s greed. That need has passed."

The tears that glistened in her brown eyes brought an ache of sadness to Drew’s chest. His questions about these girls didn’t matter. To see Aldora smile and for her to have the comforts she deserved, he had been willing to marry an heiress. Why not this one?

He patted Aldora’s shoulder. "Would this marriage please you?"

"You know it would."

He nodded. "I need an heiress, and if the marriage will bring you joy --" He couldn’t say the words yet.

She brushed her hand over brown hair that was liberally sprinkled with white. "The directions for my son-in-law’s solicitor and business partner are in the letter. You must write him at once."

He felt trapped by her enthusiasm. "I’ll return to London tomorrow and seek him out. Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Tristan would be delighted to have your company."

She laughed. "La, Drew, I doubt that rascal would want an old woman meddling in his affairs." She patted his cheek. "There is much to do." Her radiant smile warmed him. "Three granddaughters. Nicola, Elizabeth and Margaret. This is more than I dreamed."

For an instant, her smile faltered. He knew she thought of her four daughters, each lost in some tragic way.

"And you have me." His need to have her confirm his importance to her startled him. He had neither right nor reason to feel threatened by these unknown chits.

The brilliance returned to her smile. "And you have brought me much joy." She lifted the candlestick. "I’ll see you at breakfast. Oh, Drew, I must make ready for my girls."

He felt a touch of regret that he hadn’t been the one to bring laughter to her voice. "There is time. The voyage from India is long."

"I know I must wait, but ‘twill be hard." She closed the door.

He picked up the letter and read the contents. Marriage to an heiress was the only way to restore the estates depleted by the late earl’s gambling. Drew groaned. He had all but agreed to the union.

He crumpled the letter. Marriage to one of the coming Season’s heiresses would never bring the weight he felt pressing on his chest. He had intended his marriage to be one of convenience, providing a title for his wife and money and an heir for himself. How could he have that kind of marriage with Nicola Gordon when she was Aldora’s granddaughter?

The crumpled paper fell on the desk. Aldora would expect him to love her granddaughter. Love was an illusion. He could never love any woman, even Nicola Gordon. He would never allow her to have that power over him. Never!

* * * *

Calcutta, September 1810

"Never!" Nicola held back her tears. She glared at the dark-haired man who stood on the other side of the table her father had used as a desk. Fergus Crawford always made her think of a snake. His dark and hooded eyes gleamed with the hypnotic power of a cobra. She swallowed the lump fear had formed in her throat. "My sisters and I will stay here. This house is ours."

His lips curled into a sneer. "Calcutta is no place for three lassies ta live with na male protection. Your pa and me were partners and cousins. He’s sure ta name my guardian."

Nicola drew a deep breath. He didn’t know about the arrangements her papa had made for them. "We will not leave our home."

"Then I will come here. ‘Tis a finer house than mine." His smile chilled her. "Time has come for me ta take a wife. Your canny eye for gemstones had made a fortune for your pa and me. I ain’t about to lose your skills."

Nicola swallowed a rush of bitter fluid. She needed time. If the escort didn’t arrive soon, she would have to take her sisters and flee.

He leaned across the table. "I think you’ll do nicely. You’ve a fortnight to make ready for the wedding. I’ll be away. Your pa lost something of great value. You sure there was na goodly sized sapphire in the last lot you sorted?"

She shook her head. She refused to tell him about the pouch her father had given her and the gems she hadn’t examined yet. "You saw all the gems there were."

"Search again. I want that sapphire." He clamped his hat on his head. "Twa weeks, lassie."

Once he’d vanished, the tears she’d held inside burst free with the same force as the monsoon rains now lashing the house. She sank to her knees on the carpet and pressed her forehead against her father’s chair. For a short time, she allowed grief and fear to dominate. Then, she wiped her face on the skirt of her black silk afternoon dress.

When would the escort arrive? Her insides churned at the thought of being forced into a marriage with Fergus Crawford. If he claimed guardianship of her sisters, who in Calcutta would protest? Why hadn’t her parents said more about their families? Papa had been an orphan and Mama had only spoken of a cruel father and a timid mother. She’d never mentioned where in England they lived or said their name.
Nicola had believed her life would continue in the pattern set after her mother’s death. She would run the house, supervise and teach her sisters and evaluate gemstones for her father. The trade in jewels provided monies for household expenses and to be sent to London to be invested.

She rose from the floor and entered the parlor where her sisters sat. Margaret jumped up. "Did he hurt you?"

"He wouldn’t dare." At least not yet. Nicola shuddered.

"But I heard you crying."

"He says I must marry him." She gulped a breath. "He can’t stay here. We must be gone before he returns to the city."

"Where will we go?" Elizabeth asked.

"Papa wrote to Mr. Grey months ago and asked for someone to escort us to London." Nicola grasped the back of a chair. "We will go to our mother’s family." She would see her sisters safe in London. Then she would return for she couldn’t imagine living elsewhere."

Margaret ran to the amah. The plump woman held the ten year old against her chest. Prabha’s ebony eyes filled with tears. The amah had been with the family since Nicola’s birth. She was the only mother Margaret knew."

Margaret stamped her foot. "I want to stay with Prabha." Her voice rose to a wail.

To forestall more tears, Nicola made a promise she wasn’t sure she could keep. "She will come with us. Sarad, too. You must pack your things and be ready to leave."

Once her sisters and the amah left the room, Nicola slumped on a chair. The fear she had hidden from them leaped into her thoughts like a tiger pouncing on a victim.
A short time later, she stepped onto the verandah and strode toward the rear of the house. The heavy rains had lightened, but the day remained gloomy.

She hadn’t told her sisters that their father had arranged a marriage for her. She thought of her parents and the closeness they had shared. She wanted to find the same kind of love, but how could she with a stranger?

"Papa," she cried. "Why did you leave us?"

"Young Seeker."

Nicola whirled. "Namtase, Yogi Yakshi. I didn’t expect you today."

"There is much I must tell you before you leave this land." He put a hand on her arm to still her cries of protest. "You must listen."

She bowed her head. "I will hear."

"There is a gem, the Third Eye of Siva. The one who has the gem as a gift will receive all he deserves."

She frowned. Papa had mentioned Siva and the Third Eye. Cousin Fergus had demanded a large sapphire. Were they the same?

"I don’t understand."

"This is not the time for understanding. It is the time of flight from danger."

"Why did Papa leave us?"

The elderly man took her hand. "My child, each of us remains on this plain for an allotted time. Your father has completed his cycle and now embraces a new existence."

"How can you be sure?"

He smiled. "This is the way of things."

Nicola knew he would say no more on the matter. She leaned against the railing.

"In the distant past, wise men cast horoscopes for those born in the future. I have seen yours. You have tasks to perform. In a far land, you will meet one who needs your loving spirit to release him from the bonds he has tied around his heart and soul."

What did he mean? The yogi’s teachings were often oblique and filled with mystical meanings. "I don’t want to leave my home."

"To stay is to court danger." Dark eyes filled with wisdom captured her gaze. "Once you look into the Third Eye of Siva, all will be clear."

She swallowed. "I don’t understand."

"You must leave this land and fulfill your destiny. Forget not my teachings and choose your path to maksha carefully. The way of liberation from the cycles is difficult, yet each time you make the journey brings you closer to perfection."

Sadness wove a dark pattern in her thoughts. "I will return. I can’t live forever in a strange land."

"Love will bind you to the place of your people. The path to kama is strewn with boulders, but in the end, you will find all the love you seek. My blessing goes with you."

Nicola bowed to him. "May your days be filled with enlightenment."

"And yours with learning. We have met before and our lives will be joined again."

"I pray you are right."

"Miss Nicola," Sarad called. "A man has come."

Nicola watched the yogi until he reached the garden gate. She wanted to call him back and ask him to change the words he’d said and to give her hope of a return. After he vanished into the mist, she followed Sarad into the house.
A slender, foppish man with graying hair paced from one side of the parlor to the other. At Nicola’s entrance, he paused. "Miss Gordon."

"Who are you?"

"Isaac Timmons, at your service. Mr. Grey sent me to escort you and your sisters to London."

Relief flooded Nicola. "When do we leave?"

"The ship sails in a week. I trust you will be ready."

She nodded. They would be safely away before Cousin Fergus returned to Calcutta. "We’ll be ready. We’ve already begun to pack."

"Very good." he smiled. "By the time we reach London, the Earl of Denmere will have signed the marriage contracts."

She wished to forget that part of her father’s plans. She turned away. Why must she wed a stranger?

After Mr. Timmons was settled in the guest room, Nicola went to her bedroom. She lifted the pouch of gems her father had pushed into her hand the night he died. In England, her sisters would be safe. She tucked the pouch in her trunk. The gemstones would provide a means for her return.

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