The Untamed Bride(10)

By: Stephanie Laurens



It took a moment to register that beside him lay his lieutenant and the troop’s corporal.

It was Rafe—who of them all had seen more of the Black Cobra’s lethal handiwork than any one man should ever have to bear—who turned away with a vicious oath.

Del seized his arm. Simply said, “Let me.”

He had to drag in a breath, physically drag his gaze from the bodies before he could raise his head and look at the waiting sowar. “What happened?”

Even to him, his voice sounded deadly.

The sowar wasn’t a coward. With creditable composure, he lifted his chin and came to attention. “We were more than halfway back on the road from Poona, when the Captain-sahib realized there were horsemen chasing us. We rode on quickly, but then the Captain-sahib stopped at a place where the road narrows, and sent us all on. The lieutenant stayed with him, along with three others. The Captain-sahib sent the rest of us all pell-mell on with the memsahib.”

Del glanced at the wagon bed. “When was this?”

“Earlier today, Colonel-sahib.”

“Who sent you back?”

The sowar shifted. “When we came within sight of Bombay, the memsahib insisted we go back. The Captain-sahib had ordered us to stay with her all the way to the fort, but she was very agitated. She allowed only two of us to go with her to the governor’s house. The rest of us went back to see if we could help the Captain-sahib and the lieutenant.” The sowar paused, then went on more quietly, “But there were only these bodies left when we reached the place.”

“They took two of your troop?”

“We could see where they had dragged them away behind their horses, Colonel-sahib. We didn’t think following would do any good.”

Despite the calmness of the words, the outward stoicism of the native troops, Del knew every one of them would be railing inside.

As was he, Gareth, Logan, Rafe.

But there was nothing they could do.

He nodded, stepped back, drawing Rafe with him.

“We will be taking them to the infirmary, Colonel-sahib.”

“Yes.” He met the man’s eyes, nodded. “Thank you.”

Numbly, he turned. Releasing Rafe, Del led the way back to the barracks.

As they climbed the shallow steps, Rafe, as usual, put their tortured thoughts into words.

“For the love of God, why?”



Why?

The question rebounded again and again between them, refashioned and rephrased in countless ways. James might have been younger than the rest of them, but he’d been neither inexperienced nor a glory-hunter—and he wasn’t the one they called “Reckless.”

“So why in all hell did he make a stand, rather than at least try to escape? While they were moving, they had a chance—he had to have known that.” Rafe slumped in his usual chair at their table in the officers’ bar.

After a moment, Del answered, “He had a reason—that’s why.”

Logan sipped the arrack Del had ordered instead of their usual beer. The bottle stood in the center of the table, already half empty. Eyes narrowed, he said, “It had to have been something about the governor’s niece.”

“Thought of that.” Gareth set down his empty glass and reached for the bottle. “I asked the sowars—they said she rode well, like the devil. She didn’t hold them up. And she tried to veto James’s plan to stay behind, but he pulled rank and ordered her on.”

“Humph.” Rafe drained his glass, then held out his hand for the bottle. “So what was it? James might be lying in the infirmary very dead, but damned if I’m going to accept that he stayed back on a whim—not him.”

“No,” Del said. “You’re right—not him.”

“Heads up,” Rafe said, his gaze going down the verandah. “Skirts on parade.”

The others turned their heads to look. The skirts in question were on a slender young lady—a very English lady with a pale, porcelain face and sleek brown hair secured in a knot at the back of her head. She stood just inside the bar and peered through the shadows, noting the groups of officers dotted here and there. Her gaze reached them in the corner, paused, but then the barboy came forward and she turned to him.

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