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."
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.