The Hero :
Greene, the elderly butler, stood in the hall. "My lady, the Earl has arrived. He’s supping in the library."
"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.
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."
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 live, but how could she with a stranger?
"Papa," she cried. "Why did you leave us?"
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.