The Untamed Bride(8)

By: Stephanie Laurens



Smiling at James’s angling for his pick of the missions when he returned from Poona, Del ambled beside Gareth and Logan as they followed the other two outside.

September 2, eighteen days later

East India Company Barracks, Bombay

A hot, dry wind blew relentlessly across the maidan, swirling the dust kicked up by the sepoys practicing formation, marching as the sun slowly bled in the west.

On the verandah of the barracks, Del sat in a low-slung wooden chair, feet up on the extendable arms, glass in hand as, with Gareth similarly at ease beside him, he waited for the others to join them. Logan and Rafe had been due to return from their most recent sorties today, and James was expected back from Poona. It was time to take stock again, to decide what next to try.

Logan had ridden in with his troop half an hour ago. Covered in dust, he’d reported to the fort commander, then crossed to the barracks. Climbing the shallow steps to the verandah, he’d shaken his head grimly before Del or Gareth could ask how he’d fared, then gone into the barracks to wash and change.

Del watched the sepoys drilling tirelessly on the parade ground, and felt the weight of failure drag. The others, he knew, felt the same. They’d been pressing relentlessly—in Rafe’s case, increasingly recklessly—trying to pry loose the vital evidence they needed, but nothing they’d learned had been sufficient to meet Wolverstone’s criteria.

What they had learned had confirmed that Ferrar and no other was the Black Cobra. Both Rafe and Logan had found ex-cultists who once had been high in the organization, but had grown jaded with the Cobra’s vicious rule and had successfully fled the Cobra’s territory; they’d verified that the Black Cobra was an “anglo”—an Englishman—moreover one who spoke with the refined and distinctive accents of the upper class.

Combined with their previous grounds for suspicion, as well as the documents and guarded comments Del and Gareth had managed to tease from various Maratha princelings, there was absolutely no doubt that they had the right man.

Yet they still had to prove it.

A heavy bootstep heralded Logan. He slumped in a chair alongside them, let his head fall back and closed his eyes.

“No luck?” Gareth asked, although the answer was obvious.

“Worse.” Logan didn’t open his eyes. “Every village we rode into, the people were cowering. They didn’t even want to be seen talking to us. The Black Cobra has them in its coils and they’re frightened—and from all we saw, with good reason.” Logan paused, then continued, voice lower, eyes still closed, “There were examples of the Black Cobra’s vengeance impaled outside most villages—women and children, as well as men.”

He drew a shaky breath, then sat up and scrubbed both hands over his face. “It was…beyond ghastly.” After a moment, he glanced at the other two. “We have to stop this madman.”

Del grimaced. “Did you see Rafe?”

“Only early on. He headed further east, up into the hills. He was hoping to find the edges of the Cobra’s territory, to see if any village was resisting in the hope they’d trade information for assistance.”

Gareth humphed. “Searching for a fight, as always.” It was said without rancor.

Logan looked out across the maidan. “Aren’t we all?”

Del followed his gaze to where, far beyond the open fort gates, a dust cloud drew steadily nearer.

By the time the cloud had passed through the distant gates, it had resolved into Rafe at the head of the troop of sowars he’d commandeered for his mission.

Just one look at Rafe’s face as he drew rein some yards away to spare them the inevitable dust was enough to answer their most urgent question. He hadn’t fared any better than Logan in gaining evidence of the Black Cobra’s identity.

Handing his reins to the sergeant, Rafe walked to the verandah, weariness—nay, exhaustion—in every line of his long frame. Eschewing the steps, he came to the railing beyond which they sat, crossed his forearms upon it and laid his tousled and dusty blond head on his arms. His voice reached them, muffled, strangely hoarse. “Please tell me that one of you found something—anything—we can use to stop this fiend.”

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