The Untamed Bride(2)

By: Stephanie Laurens



All five of them seated before Hastings’s desk had seen human carnage unimaginable to most; as a group they’d served through the Peninsula campaign in the cavalry under Paget, then been in the thick of the action at Waterloo, and had subsequently taken commissions with the Honorable East India Company to serve under Hastings as an elite group of officers deployed specifically to deal with the worst uprisings and instabilities the subcontinent had thrown up over the past seven years.

Seated between Gareth and Rafe, Major Logan Monteith’s lip curled as, with a flick of his tanned wrist, he sent the report he’d read skating to join the others on the desk. “This Black Cobra makes Kali and her thugees look civilized.”

Beyond Rafe, the last and youngest of their five, Captain James MacFarlane, still faintly baby-faced even though he was twenty-nine, leaned forward and carefully laid the document he’d perused with the others. “Has Bombay no clue as to who’s behind this? No trail—no associates, no area in which the Cobra has its headquarters?”

“After more than five months of active searching, Bombay has precisely nothing beyond a suspicion that some of the Maratha princelings have been drawn into clandestinely supporting the cult.”

Rafe snorted. “Any fool could have predicted that. Ever since we slapped them down in ’18, they’ve been spoiling for a fight—any fight, they’re not particular.”

“Exactly.” Hastings’s tone was acid, biting. “As you know, Ensworth is now governor in Bombay. He’s performing well in all other respects, but he’s all diplomat, no military man, and he freely admits that when it comes to the Black Cobra he’s in over his head.” Hastings’s gaze raked them, coming to rest on Del. “Which is where you gentlemen come in.”

“I take it,” Del said, “that Ensworth isn’t going to get his nose out of joint when we ride into his patch.”

“On the contrary—he’ll welcome you with open arms. He’s at his wits’ end trying to reassure the merchants while simultaneously balancing the books for London—not easy when every fifth convoy is plundered.” Hastings paused, and for a moment the strain of managing the far-flung empire India had become showed in his face. Then his jaw firmed, and he met their gazes. “I can’t overstate the importance of this mission. The Black Cobra has to be stopped. Its depredations and the atrocities committed in its name have reached a level that threatens not just the Company, but England herself—not just in terms of trade, but in stature, and you’ve all been here long enough to know how vital the latter is to our nation’s continuing interests. And lastly”—with his head he indicated the reports on his desk—“it’s India, and the people in those villages, who need the Cobra removed.”

“No argument there.” Rafe came out of his characteristic lounge and rose to his feet as Del and the others did.

Hastings let his gaze travel over them as they ranged shoulder-to-shoulder before his desk, a solid wall of red in their uniforms. They were all over six feet tall, ex-Guardsmen all, hardened by long years of battle and command. Experience etched their features, even MacFarlane’s; worldly knowledge colored their eyes.

Satisfied with what he saw, Hastings nodded. “Your mission, gentlemen, is to identify and capture the Black Cobra, and bring him to justice. You have a free hand as to ways and means. I care not how you do it, as long as justice is seen—and known—to have been done. As usual, you may draw on the company’s account, and on its troops as seems fit.”

Typically it was Rafe who put their collective thoughts into words, albeit his words. “You mentioned beheading.” His tone was light, his habitual ineffable charm on show, as if he were at some tea party and speaking of croquet. “With cults that’s usually the most effective approach. Can we take it you would rather we went direct for the leader—or are we to play cautious and try to defend the convoys wherever possible?”

Hastings met Rafe’s guileless blue eyes. “You, Captain, wouldn’t know caution from your elbow.”

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