The Untamed Bride(6)

By: Stephanie Laurens

“True.” Logan spun his empty glass between his fingers. “And after these last months—and the months to come until we get the proof we need—by the time we do, I’ll have had more than enough.” He looked up. “I’m ready to go home permanently, too.”

Del nodded. “And me.” He looked at Gareth.

Who nodded. “I’ve been campaigning all my adult life—as have all of you. I’ve enjoyed the campaigns, but this, what we’re doing here now, is no longer campaigning. What this country needs isn’t military, not cavalry and guns. It needs rulers who rule, and that’s not what we are.” He glanced at the others. “I suppose what I’m saying is our role here is done.”

“Or will be done,” Del amended, “once we take down the Black Cobra.”

Rafe looked at James. “What about you, stripling?”

Although he’d been one of them since before Waterloo, James was the baby of the group. There was only two years in age between him and Rafe, yet in experience and even more in temperament the difference was immeasurably greater. In knowledge, attitude, and sheer hardened command, Rafe was as old as Del. Rafe had remained a captain by choice, had turned down promotion the better to merge with his men, to inspire and lead. He was a remarkable commander in the field.

Del, Gareth, Logan and Rafe were equals, their strengths not exactly the same but equally respected, each by the others. James, no matter the actions he fought in, the atrocities he observed, the carnage he witnessed, still retained some vestige of the apple-cheeked innocence he’d had when he’d first joined them, a youthful subaltern in their old cavalry troop. Hence their paternalistic affection, their habit of seeing him as much younger, of ribbing him as a junior officer, someone whose welfare they still felt compelled to keep a watchful, if distant, eye on.

Now James shrugged. “If you’re all resigning, then I will, too—my parents will be happy to see me home. They’ve been hinting for the last year that it was time I came back, settled down—all that.”

Rafe chuckled. “They’ve probably got a young lady picked out for you.”

Entirely unruffled as he always was by their ribbing, James merely smiled. “Probably.”

James was the only one of them with parents still living. Del had two paternal aunts, while Rafe, the younger son of a viscount, had countless connections and siblings he hadn’t seen in years, but like Gareth and Logan, he didn’t have anyone waiting for him in England.

Returning home. Only James had any real home to return to. For the rest of them, “home” was a nebulous concept they would have to define once they were back on English soil. In returning to England, the older four would, in a sense, be venturing into the unknown, yet for himself Del knew it was time. He wasn’t surprised the others felt the same.

He signaled the barboy for another round. When it came, and the boy withdrew, he lifted his glass. “India has made us wealthy, given us more than we ever otherwise would have had. It seems only right to pay the country back by taking down”—glancing at Rafe, he grinned—“by beheading the Black Cobra, and if, as it seems, that will lead us back to England, then that, too, seems fitting.” He met the others’ eyes. “We’re all in this together.” He raised his glass, held it out for them to meet it with theirs. “Here’s to our eventual return to England.”

“Home,” Rafe echoed, as the glasses clinked.

They all drank, then Gareth, ever practical, asked, “So how are we faring getting our proof?”

They’d spent the last three months—ever since they’d convinced themselves that Roderick Ferrar, second adjutant to the Governor of Bombay, had to be the Black Cobra—trying to turn up evidence of Ferrar’s secret identity, all to no avail. Each now reported their latest forays into what was fast becoming known as “Black Cobra territory,” each thrust aimed at uncovering some trail, some clue, some solid connection back to Ferrar. All they’d uncovered were terrorized villages, some burnt to the ground, others with empty huts and no survivors, with evidence of rape and torture all around.

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