The Untamed Bride(3)

By: Stephanie Laurens

Del’s lips twitched; from the corner of his eye, he saw Gareth’s do the same. Rafe, nicknamed “Reckless” for good cause, merely looked innocent, continuing to meet Hastings’s cynical gaze.

Hastings humphed. “Your supposition is correct. I expect you to target the Black Cobra specifically, to identify and eliminate him. For the rest, do whatever you can, but the situation is urgent, and we can no longer afford caution.”

Again Hastings’s gaze raked them. “You may interpret my orders in whatever way you wish—just bring the Black Cobra to justice.”

August 15, five months later

The Officers’ Mess

The Honorable East India Company Bombay Station

“Hastings did say we could interpret his orders as we wished—that we had a free hand as to ways and means.” Rafe settled his shoulders against the wall behind him, then raised one of the glasses the barboy had just set on the table, and took a long draft of cloudy amber beer.

The five of them—Del, Gareth, Logan, Rafe and James—were seated around the corner table they’d claimed as theirs in the bar off the officers’ mess. They’d chosen that table because of its amenities, namely that it commanded an uninterrupted view of the entire bar—the enclosed front verandah of the officers’ mess—as well as the maidan beyond the verandah steps. In addition—the table’s principal recommendation—with thick stone walls at their back and along one side, there wasn’t anywhere anyone could stand unobserved by them, inside or out, and overhear their low-voiced discussions.

The bamboo screens fitted between the verandah’s front pillars were presently lowered against the late afternoon sun and the dust stirred up by a troop of sepoys engaged in parade drills, leaving the bar wreathed in cooler shadows. A distant hum of conversation rose from two groups of officers seated further down the long verandah; the clink of billiard balls wafted from an alcove off the verandah’s far end.

“True.” Gareth claimed a glass. “But I doubt the good marquess envisioned us going around him.”

“I can’t see that we have any choice.” Along with the other three, Logan looked at Del.

Staring into his beer, Del felt their gazes, looked up and met them. “If, as we believe, the Black Cobra is Roderick Ferrar, then Hastings won’t thank us for bringing him the news.”

“But he’ll still act on it, surely?” James reached for the last glass left on the tray.

Del glanced at him. “Did you notice the portrait behind Hastings’s desk?”

“The one of Prinny?”

Del nodded. “That’s not company property, but Hastings’s own. He owes his appointment to Prinny—pardon me, His Majesty—and knows he can never forget it. If, presuming we can find it, we take him incontrovertible proof that Ferrar is our villain, we’ll place him in the invidious position of having to decide which master to appease—his conscience, or his king.”

Frowning, James turned his glass between his hands. “Is Ferrar really that untouchable?”

“Yes.” Del’s voice was reinforced by Gareth’s, Logan’s and Rafe’s.

“Hastings is beholden to the king,” Del explained, “and the king is beholden to Ferrar senior, the Earl of Shrewton. Furthermore, although he’s Shrewton’s second son, Ferrar is widely known to be his father’s favorite.”

“Rumor,” Rafe said, leaning on the table, “has it that the king is in Shrewton’s pocket—not a situation all that hard to believe—so unless there’s some animosity between Hastings and Shrewton that no one knows of, odds are that Hastings will feel obliged to ‘lose’ any evidence we find.”

Logan snorted. “Hell—I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the gold the Cobra is skimming off John Company’s profits isn’t, in a roundabout way, ending in His Majesty’s pocket.”

“Hastings,” Gareth reminded them, “was very insistent that we ‘bring the Black Cobra to justice.’ He didn’t instruct us to capture him and deliver him to Bombay.” He looked at Del, arched a brow. “Do you think Hastings might suspect, and this—using us—is his way of gaining justice without offending his royal master?”

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