Veils of silk, p.1

Veils of Silk, page 1

 part  #3 of  Silk Trilogy Series


Veils of Silk

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Veils of Silk

  Veils of Silk

  Book 3 of The Silk Trilogy


  Mary Jo Putney

  © 1992, 2011 by Mary Jo Putney, Inc.

  Published by: ePublishing Works!

  ISBN: 978-1-61417-106-5

  Without limiting the rights under copyright(s) reserved above and below, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

  Please Note

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading, and distributing of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

  Cover by Kim Killion

  eBook design by eBook Prep

  Thank You.

  To Mary Shea, with thanks for her unique contributions to my writing career. And also, of course, for being a friend.

  About India

  India is one of the most complex and ancient societies in the world, and I was alarmed at the thought of the research that would be required to use it as the setting of Veils of Silk. However, since my hero, Ian Cameron, was an officer in the Indian Army, I crossed my fingers and plunged in.

  Most Americans tend to think of colonial India as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet that is only a small part of the story, for Britain's long involvement with the subcontinent went through many phases. It began on New Year's Eve in the year 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I signed a charter that gave the Honorable East India Company exclusive trading rights with the East Indies.

  The Company was founded for purely commercial purposes, yet by the time of its demise two hundred and fifty years later, it had become the largest corporation the world has ever known. Not only did "John Company" have its own army and navy; it was responsible for almost one-fifth of the world's population.

  After 1833, the Company no longer engaged in trade. Instead, it became a corporation that administered India on behalf of Great Britain. The Company and Her Majesty's government were so intertwined that royal troops served side by side with units of the much larger Indian Army. Incidentally, at this time British authority was referred to as the Sirkar. The term "Raj" did not come into use until much later.

  Large portions of the subcontinent were never under direct British control. Over five hundred states, ranging from tiny to enormous, were ruled by native princes, a situation that continued right up until Independence in 1947. The princely states had varying degrees of independence, and in 1841 the strongest of them represented a real threat to British power.

  The Sirkar had to be wary not only of powerful native princes and marauding frontier tribesmen, but also of Russia, for the tsars would have dearly loved to add India to the expanding Russian Empire. The covert conflict between Russian and British agents in Central Asia became known as "the Great Game," and it set the pattern for the twentieth century Cold War.

  Until roughly the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, administrators and soldiers had close ties with natives and there was little of the appalling racism which blighted the later colonial period. In fact, since there were few European women in India, the Company encouraged its employees to take native wives or mistresses. Mixed blood was no great stigma, and many distinguished men, such as Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and Field Marshal Lord Roberts, had Indian ancestry.

  A paradigm of the racial situation was the elite Indian Army cavalry unit known as Skinner's Horse. It was founded by James Skinner, the son of a British officer and his Rajput wife. By the end of the nineteenth century, James Skinner's mixed blood would have prevented him from serving in the regiment he had founded.

  As transportation improved, more Europeans came out to India, and the influx of wives, missionaries, and moralists changed the atmosphere. British officers spent less time with their men, and the social lines hardened, contributing to the infamous Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The Mutiny sounded the death knell for John Company, for afterward Parliament decided that India was too important to leave in the hands of a private corporation. The British government took over direct rule, including Company institutions such as the much-respected Indian Civil Service and the Indian Army.

  A note about language. Most of the languages of Pakistan and northern India are closely related, and are derived from the Persian spoken by earlier invaders. A form of Urdu was the lingua franca of the Army, and Persian was spoken by the elite. Today, Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language written in different scripts, and are sometimes referred to jointly as Hindustani.

  Native princes, the First Afghan War, and early foreshadowings of issues that helped precipitate the Mutiny sixteen years later: for an author, the material was a positive embarrassment of riches. Though the romance of Ian and Laura is the heart of Veils of Silk, I have tried to also do justice to the story's fascinating setting. I hope you enjoy your imaginary trip to India as much as I enjoyed writing about it.

  To everything there is a season,

  And a time to every purpose under the heaven:

  A time to be born, and a time to die;

  A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

  A time to kill, and a time to heal;

  A time to break down, and a time to build up;

  A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

  A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

  A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

  A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

  A time to get, and a time to lose;

  A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

  A time to rend, and a time to sew;

  A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

  A time to love, and a time to hate;

  A time of war, And a time of peace.

  Ecclesiastes 3:1-3:8


  Bombay Harbor

  September 1841

  Ian Cameron didn't need his one good eye to recognize Bombay; he could have identified India by scent alone. As the schooner slowly edged into the harbor, he was assailed by the aromas of spices and flowers and the faint, underlying odor of decay. He was equally assaulted by the vibrant colors. The brilliant scarlets and golds were a shock after the soft hues of the Arabian Sea.

  The ship lurched in the trough of a wave and Ian caught the railing with his left hand. The abrasive sights and sounds of the docks made him yearn for the stillness of the Central Asian desert that he had crossed after being rescued from Bokhara. He had been so focused on bare survival that he hadn't appreciated how the subtle tones of the desert had gently reintroduced him to the land of the living.

  During the weeks Ian had spent with his sister Juliet and her husband, Ross, it had taken immense effort to maintain his control, to make wry jokes and pretend there was nothing wrong with him that a little time and a few square meals wouldn't cure. Despite of his best efforts, he doubted that he had been entirely convincing. He had been indecently grateful when the time came for him to return alone to his regiment in India.

  Absently Ian rubbed the black patch that covered his right eye, then ran his fingers through his auburn hair.
His head ached, but less than usual. Perhaps that was because he was, finally, in the land that had been home for most of his adult life. During the last two years of hell he had wanted nothing more than to return to India, and to his fiancée.

  Georgina. Golden-haired, graceful Georgina, the most sought-after English girl in northern India. Ian realized that his heartbeat was quickening, as much with anxiety as with anticipation. He forced himself to breathe deeply until the fear subsided.

  More than India, more than his friends in the regiment, he needed to see Georgina, to hold her in his arms again. Then he would be all right.

  His knuckles whitened as his fingers clenched the teak railing. Pray God he would be all right.

  Chapter 1

  Baipur Station

  North Central India

  Nightmares again. Laura awoke gasping and sat up in bed, one flailing hand striking the muslin mosquito curtain that surrounded her. Shaking, she buried her face in her hands.

  As her fear eased, she wryly reproached herself for becoming so upset when her nightmares were such old friends. They had begun when she was six years old, when she had first witnessed the savagery that could exist between men and women.

  These days the nightmares were rare and usually occurred only when change was imminent. Unfortunately, the images had lost none of their vivid emotion. Fear, revulsion, and shame. Passion, disaster, death.

  Wearily Laura brushed the tawny hair from her damp forehead. Most of the time she was a levelheaded woman of twenty-four, calm and collected to a fault. Yet in her nightmares she was always a frantic, terrified child, and no amount of maturity had changed that. She supposed she must content herself with being grateful that the bad dreams came only two or three times a year.

  It seemed absurd to have nightmares when the change coming was one she welcomed. Tomorrow she and her stepfather would leave on a camping tour of the district, which was the most rewarding part of the yearly routine. Nonetheless, the prospect had woken her sleeping demons for one of their periodic assaults.

  The air had cooled to a comfortable temperature and on the veranda the hanging wind bells tinkled faintly at a cat's-paw of wind. Laura lifted the mosquito curtain and swung her bare feet to the floor. Heedless of possible scorpions, she crossed to the window, where she saw the first light of dawn in the east. Good; that meant she didn't have to try to go back to sleep again.

  Like many Britons in India, she and her stepfather were in the habit of taking early morning rides, before the heat of the day took hold. Soon he would rise and they would have tea and toast together. After their ride, he would attend to his duties as district collector and she would see to the myriad details necessary to close the house and prepare for their journey. It would be a busy, predictable day.

  But for a moment, before turning to light the lamp, Laura savored the rippling notes of the wind bells and the other rich sounds and scents of the night. As the breeze caressed her face, the voluptuous darkness called to her. India's very nature was passion, and sometimes—too often—she longed to surrender to it. Unthinkingly she drew her hands down her body, her palms shaping her breasts and hips as she felt the warm pulse of flesh beneath the thin muslin shift.

  Realizing what she was doing, she flushed and turned away from the dangerous sensuality of the night.

  * * *

  Laura was in the cookhouse selecting supplies when her father's bearer came to announce that the joint magistrate was paying a call. She wrinkled her nose—the last thing a woman packing for a trip needed was visitors—but said, "Thank you, Padam. Tell Mr. Walford that I'll join him directly."

  She took the covered walkway that led from the cookhouse to the bungalow and went to her bedroom to check her appearance. As expected after hours of bustling, she looked as if she had been dragged through a bush backward, with tendrils of light brown hair rioting in all directions from the knot at the back of her head. That didn't bother her much, but her clinging, perspiration-damped gown did, for the last thing Emery Walford needed was provocation. She called her maid and changed to a shapeless white muslin dress, then went to greet her guest.

  Shaded by trellises covered with flowering vines, the veranda was the most pleasant part of the bungalow. As soon as Laura appeared, the magistrate stood, six feet of shy, handsome young man. "Good afternoon, Laura," he said. "I know you must be busy, but I wanted to say good-bye before you left." He swallowed, then said unimaginatively, "It's very hot today."

  "But soon the cool weather will begin, for six glorious months." Laura gestured for him to sit down, choosing a wickerwork chair a safe distance away for herself. Even so, she was uncomfortably aware of his yearning. Ever since she was fourteen, men had desired Laura; even with her eyes closed, she could sense the hot, wordless pressure of male hunger.

  Lord only knew why so many men wanted her, for she was no beauty and certainly offered them no encouragement; nonetheless, the desire was almost always there. Most men's admiration was gentlemanly and not a problem, but Emery's blatant longing was embarrassing. That was a pity, for she liked his intelligence and sweet earnestness. They would have been better friends if he did not so obviously lust after her.

  As tea and jelabi cakes were served, the young magistrate said, "Wouldn't it be better to wait until the cool weather begins before starting the tour? The heat is so enervating."

  "But camping is stimulating," she replied with a smile. "We've been looking forward to it for weeks. Father says that touring the district is the most important part of his job."

  Eyes downcast, Emery stirred sugar into his tea. "I... we'll miss you and your father here at the station."

  "We'll be back before you know it," she said briskly.

  "Not until almost Christmas." He hesitated, as if trying to work himself up to say something important.

  "With pig-sticking season coming, I'm sure you'll be busy," Laura said, craftily changing the subject. "Father said you've gotten a wonderful new horse from an Afghan trader?"

  Emery brightened and began describing his new mount, a topic that saw them safely through the tea and cakes. Laura sipped and nodded at the appropriate places, but most of her attention was on the unwelcome knowledge that sooner or later, in spite of her attempts to keep him at bay, Emery would offer marriage.

  There was nothing very complimentary about such an offer, for at least half the British bachelors she had met in India had proposed to her. European girls were so scarce that even the most horse-faced and sharp-tongued received their share of proposals.

  Though an offer seemed inevitable, she preferred to postpone it as long as possible because her refusal would create awkwardness. The handful of Britons in Baipur saw a great deal of each other, and anything that caused tension was to be avoided.

  She might be tempted to accept, for Emery was amiable and very good-looking. More than once she had caught herself thinking that he was not at all like Edward, so perhaps it would be safe to marry him. It would be a pleasure to have his strong arms around her, to feel his lips and his hands...

  Whenever her thoughts reached that point, speculation was drowned by a wave of panic. The problem was not Emery, but her, and marriage was out of the question.

  Finishing her tea, she stood and offered her hand. "I don't want to seem rude, Emery, but I must get back to work. Otherwise we may find ourselves deep in the country without tea, or quinine, or something equally essential."

  "If you need anything, send me a message and I'll see that it's sent immediately." The magistrate clung to her hand, not wanting to release her. "Laura... there's something I must say."

  Before he could say more, salvation appeared in the form of Laura's stepfather. As Kenneth Stephenson climbed the steps to the veranda, his perceptive gaze evaluated the tableau and a glint of amusement appeared in his light blue eyes. "Good day, Emery. You're just leaving?"

  The young man flushed and released Laura's hand. "Yes. I... I only stopped by to wish you both a good journey." His longing gaze tou
ched Laura for a moment before he turned away. "I'll look forward to your return."

  As the young man collected his horse and rode away, Laura ordered another tray of refreshments. "You came in the nick of time, Father. I think Emery was about to declare himself."

  His voice serious, Kenneth Stephenson said, "You could do much worse. He's a bit callow, but he'll make some girl an excellent husband. He comes of a good family, he has an easy disposition, and he's very good at his work. He'll go far."

  "The farther the better," Laura said lightly. "I'd rather stay with you. You're much better company."

  Her stepfather smiled a little wistfully. "You should find a husband and have a family of your own, Laura."

  It was an old argument. "You're my family," she retorted. "You need me to take care of you and see that you eat properly."

  He toyed with one of the crisp jelabis. "I won't always be with you, my dear."

  Concerned at his tone, Laura studied her stepfather's face. It was easy to overlook the subtle changes in someone she saw every day. It was a shock to realize how thin he had become, how many lines there were in his sun-browned skin, and how his hair was now more gray than brown. He was older than most district officers, and living in India was arduous even for those who were young and strong. "You work too hard. Perhaps it's time for you to retire so we can go back to England."

  "How do you really feel about India?" he asked. "I'd be content to spend the rest of my life here, but it's a hard life for a young woman. I sometimes wonder if you're just pretending to be happy so I won't feel guilty about bringing you here."

  "You didn't 'bring' me—I insisted on coming with you, remember?" Laura gazed absently at the lush green countryside as she considered what to say. "I'm not sorry to live here. The land and people are fascinating, and I understand why you love them so. Yet even after five years, I find this country alien. I'll never understand it."

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