At the mention of Jarratt her stomach clenched, and a vile taste crept into her mouth. “What else,” she rasped.
Charles looked down. His sigh sounded deep and weary. “Elliot fears the Chinese response will eventually ensnare an English user or dealer. If they arrest someone or threaten violence he may be forced to act.”
If Thorn is as closely allied to the opium dens as Jarratt implied—and out of his senses from the narcotic—he could be… cow turds!
“Charles, I have to get to my brother. I can’t leave him in Jarratt’s circle.”
The duke’s eyes held hers until she felt him boring into her soul. He put out a comforting hand, and she gripped it to steady herself. “How exactly do you propose to do that, Zambak?” he asked.
“Jarratt said to come back. I’ll go tomorrow. He implied Thorn might be well, might be willing to come with me.”
“We’ll go tomorrow,” he corrected.
She stiffened in outrage for a moment before Jarratt’s face leered at her in memory, and she sagged toward Charles. When he cupped her cheek with one hand and searched her face, she thought for an insane moment he meant to kiss her. Absurd. Charles is a married man, and we’re friends. Only friends.
“We’ll go together, Zambak. We will get Thorn help together.”
Together. Relief flooded her. She had thought that accepting help made her weak, but the tenderness in the duke’s eyes gave her strength.
Lin spoke again. “Does this English duke know barbarians are forbidden inside the city walls?” He glared at Charles while his minion translated.
Charles breathed in. “I have been informed of that belatedly. I apologize that my curiosity and desire to learn about your ways drove me to break the rules. I understand that the commissioner, a man of great learning, often wishes to gather information about our ways as well.” He looked directly at Lin, whose eyes glittered, though whether with amusement or anger, Charles could not say.
“The commissioner asks if there are no books in your country.”
Charles smiled at that. “My private library has ten thousand volumes. What few I have about China were written by Englishmen. How accurate can they possibly be?”
The translator earnestly murmured in the great man’s ear. Amused this time, no question.
Alone as the shadows of his room turned to full dark, cold truths haunted her. The reports she’d gathered for her father had to be weighed against her childish and impulsive behavior. She had worried her parents, she had complicated the Elliots’ lives and career, and her actions did little to change her brother, still bent on self-destruction. Worst of all, she feared she led Charles to take risks he shouldn’t have.
One other thing took shape and came into focus so sharply she couldn’t turn away. She loved Charles Wheatly, heart and soul. A desperate laugh—half sob, half hysteria—escaped her at the thought. She finally fulfilled her mother’s fondest wish and found a man she could respect and love—one that offered little hope of a respectable future. She had no idea what to do with the thought. As it turned out she had little time to consider it.
“Who is here?” Charles demanded. He stood outlined in the light from oil lamps in the corridor behind him. Caught between love and fury over the fear he caused, she flung herself from the chair.
“Thank God!” She didn’t know whether she would hug him or slap him until she threw herself into his arms and was being kissed senseless.
Mildred Dennison didn’t back away. “Be that as it may, Lady Zambak, she seemed quite distressed that you of all people had gone off with her husband under questionable circumstances. We heard you actually dressed as a man.”
“And came back dressed as a Chinese,” Eunice squeaked, darting glances at her fellows and wringing her hands.
“No wife would put up with that,” Mrs. Dennison spat. “No matter what did—or did not—go on while you were gone. You must see that.”
“I see a great deal, Mrs. Dennison, and you are much mistaken in your views of the Duke of Murnane. He continues to be a man of honor.” Damn him anyway. I have all the disgrace and none of the pleasure. She stared the woman down, generations of ducal breeding lending her a finely honed ability to rout any encroaching mushroom who dared attack.
In the silence that followed, Zambak rose before they could regroup for another attack, like a pack of jealous terriers eager to enforce the will of the pack on a superior animal.
Award-winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things: traveler, librarian, poet, raiser of children, bird watcher, Internet and Web services manager, conference speaker, indexer, tech writer, genealogist—even a nun.
She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.