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I’ve been working and reworking this chapter. I imagine Francis walking, his heart beating loud in his ears, each step bringing back a rush of images from the past.

But romance novel contests I have submitted these chapters to have not really taken to them. Some judges got too confused. Some thought they sounded like literature rather than a romance novel! I was an English major, and I read a LOT of literature. This is definitely NOT literature.

But this is Version 4, which has a lot of pruning done to it. Many flashbacks have been taken out. I may post Version 3 later, just so you can see how much has been cut, and whether it is more powerful, or less powerful, from the omissions.

            Chapter Two           

The Third Cross Street of Wallajah High Road was wide enough for his carriage but Francis decided to enter on foot. He thought it might attract less attention. Or perhaps he wanted to buy himself a little more time before he saw her again.

Anjuli. Even from a distance, there was something both valiant and vulnerable about her. Valiant in the way she sat very straight with her head held high and her gaze steady. Vulnerable in how tightly her hands gripped the arms of her chair.

He walked forward with deliberate steps, determined to remain calm. Truth be told, she had disarmed him from his first sight of her, months ago. He was not sure what he had expected, but it had not been the tall, slim girl who looked up from her father’s deathbed with such cool poise.

*      *      *      *

Francis leaned against the doorway and watched the girl. She sat straight and still on an armless wooden chair. Mohan, her father, tossed and turned on the narrow cot next to her. His rapid, shallow breaths rattled against his chest as if each one cost a great deal of pain.

The surgeon had worked for hours but Mohan had lost a great deal of blood. He moved in and out of consciousness and was surely slipping away. If Francis had not known it from the surgeon’s grim pronouncement, he would have realized it from the stricken look in the daughter’s eyes.

He had noticed only her outward composure at first. As he looked longer, he could see her dark eyes were bright with suppressed tears. The soft lines of her chin and mouth trembled and smoothed out. She had a dent in her chin. Not a true cleft or a dimple. Just a slight dent, as if her creator had tapped a finger against it in appreciation.

She spoke first, in an unexpectedly warm and velvet voice. A voice distinctly at odds with her reserved demeanor. “Viscount Skye? You are Lord Skye?”

“And you are Mohan’s daughter. Anjuli.” The words came out colder than he intended. He did not want to punish the daughter for the sins of her father.

That dented chin went up a fraction but her manners remained faultless. A rebuke to his own.

“Yes, my lord.  I—I thank you for sending for me. And for all you have done tonight for my father. Please, won’t you come in and sit? And tell me what happened?”

There was neither irony nor fear in her face or voice. Either she was an astonishing actress or she was innocent of her father’s activities. Francis pushed himself off the doorway and took the seat across from her. The open door and her father between them would provide sufficient propriety.

“Your father was taking me to see account books he kept in another part of the Fort. We were—intercepted—on our way. A gun went off, meant for me. Your father—he—he stepped in front of me. He saved my life.”

It was mostly true. He only left out the part where Mohan lured him into the ambush. He did not know why Mohan had abruptly shoved him out of the assassin’s way at the last minute. But he would never forget the look of mild astonishment on the man’s face as he crumpled to the ground. He looked more like a scholar making a curious new discovery than a man who had just received a fatal wound.

“Appa saved your life.” Anjuli sounded equally surprised. “He’s always been just Appa to me, you know. Just this quiet man who never laughed, who barely smiled. Who seemed like he just wanted to—to fade away. I can’t imagine him—”

She broke off. Her head came up swiftly. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I am telling you any of this. It’s just—isn’t it strange how little you can truly know about your own parents, even though you’ve been with them your whole life?”

Francis watched her face carefully. “It is very strange. We are often unable to see our parents as fellow people, aren’t we? With theirs own pasts, their own thoughts, regrets, mistakes. Their own loyalties.”

Anjuli showed no sign of whether his words held any meaning for her. She laid her hand on her father’s forehead. There was a certain shy hesitation about the gesture that revealed they were not a family given to shows of affection. And a fierce tenderness that revealed her feelings ran deep even if rarely expressed.

“Why would anyone wish to harm you, my lord?”

Only Mohan could provide him with that answer. They had not found the gunman. “I am curious about it myself. But it’s something I should discuss first with your father.”

Anjuli pulled her hand back. “Appa keeps asking for you, you know,” she stammered out.

“What?” Francis forced his eyes up, to meet hers. “What has he been saying?”

Her gaze was direct and simple, devoid of self-pity. “Just your name and that he must speak with you. He also asks for my brother. I am not sure whether he realizes I am here.”

“I am sure he must. You were the first person he asked for. He insisted we send for you right away. His agitation was so great the doctor could not attend your father until we assured him you had been summoned.”

He was not sure what compelled him to offer her some measure of comfort. Perhaps it was the sliver of pain lacing her words. Or the way she strove to hide it with such dignity. If he had not been observing her so closely, her matter of fact manner might have fooled him.

And he only watched her so closely, Francis told himself, because needed to determine the extent of her knowledge about her father’s activities. If he offered her some kindness, perhaps it would help win her trust and affection. It was, after all, his duty to England to discover as much as he could.

“Do you know why it was so important to your father you get here so quickly?” Francis continued. “Perhaps you—did you—bring anything with you?”

Anjuli shook her head. “Should I have? Are you looking for something?”

He had overplayed his hand. She was an intelligent girl. The events of the day must be making him sloppy.

“I have sent for your brother as well, though I understand he may be difficult to locate. He is with Skinner’s Horse? I have heard much of them. A most formidable cavalry of irregulars.”

Anjuli pressed her palms against the seat of her chair and leaned forward. “You’re changing the subject. Why?”

A very intelligent girl. He summoned his most charming smile. “Because I keep telling you things I should not. Strange how we have this effect on each other, isn’t it?”

She stiffened. “You do not have any effect on me.”

Francis raised an eyebrow and deliberately stretched out his legs. He decided at the last minute against linking his hands behind his head and tilting the chair back. He did not want to overplay his hand again. He just wanted make her uncomfortable enough about his intentions to stop her questions. So he deliberately hooded his eyes and lowered his voice to a soft drawl.

“No effect at all, my dear? That delightful flush on your cheeks says otherwise. Is it true crimson anger, I wonder? Or a coy rose red? Whichever it is, it is quite becoming.”

She startled him by responding with a genuine smile. A full, dazzling smile that exposed dimples at each end and pulled all the light in the room to her face.

“It’s quite unfortunate you don’t have a mustache.” Her eyes danced a double duet with her dimples. “This would have been the perfect opportunity to twirl it while leering menacingly. Like so.” And she twisted her thumb and forefinger together next to her lush mouth to illustrate the action.

A burst of laughter escaped Francis before he could contain it. “A clean hit! I’ll have to do better next time I try to play the lecherous villain.”

They grinned at each other for a moment with the sudden shared camaraderie of two clever people pleased with themselves. Francis was almost certain afterwards he never looked directly at her. Yet somehow he always remembered the color of her sari: dark green like the heart of the forest, embroidered with golden pinwheels. And he never forgot the color of her eyes: a deep brown mixed with burgundy, as bright as his father’s prized port wine in its crystal decanter. As soft as the dark purple interior of the pansies in his mother’s garden.

How long had he sat there, his eyes locked with hers? Two minutes may have passed. Or twenty. Somewhere during that time, her smile faded. His smile faded too.

He ought to say something. Or better yet, he should get up and leave. He was here on a commission from Whitehall to uncover a massive financial fraud committed at the highest levels of the East India Company. He would not risk his mission by softening towards the daughter of a traitor. The daughter of a man who had conspired to kill him. Who may have sacrificed his life to save him.

He could not leave. She looked innocent and brave and good. But he would not leave her alone with her father. Of course not. It would be stupid of him to allow them an opportunity for private conversation. Until he could be certain she posed no threat, he needed to keep both father and daughter under observation. That was all. It was his duty to stay.

And as he continued to sit there, two surprising things happened. First, unlike most people, Anjuli made no attempt to fill the silence with useless chatter. Her gaze did not waver, her head did not droop, but she spoke not a single word. Second, and even more surprisingly, the awkward, slightly hostile silence between them dissolved slowly back into a companionable one. They might have sat thus all night, unsmiling but unselfconscious, quiet but comfortable, if her father had not finally regained consciousness. Francis could never have imagined how thoroughly and irrevocably a dying man would change his life, in the space between one night’s darkness and the next day’s dawn.

*      *      *      *

From that night to this morning, his decision had haunted him. She had haunted him. Anjuli. She sat outside on her verandah, waiting in full view of her neighbors. She was one and twenty, only four years younger than himself, but she looked very fragile. Her ink black hair hung down to her waist in a braid as thick as his wrist. The rising sun flashed blue highlights from the silken mass of it and struck sparks from the jewels at her wrists and ears.

He was close enough now to see the edge of unhappiness and defiance in her posture. And to grow aware of the sudden tension in the bent figures of the women around him. They all seemed absorbed in their morning rituals. But he could feel their collective gaze along the edge of his throat like a knife.

Had they somehow sensed who he was? Higgins, the government agent who traveled as his valet, had reported that Anjuli had told no one in the neighborhood of her marriage. She had never returned to the Fort to take advantage of her new status. She lived the same quite life she had lived before.           

Francis lifted the latch and pushed open the iron gate. She would fight him. She had found it harder to accept their situation than he had. After all, he had known what was stake. But he doubted she did.

And yet, no matter how she felt, she could not stay where she was. It was not just that a beautiful young woman living alone could prove a tempting target for all sorts of unsavory elements. India was no longer safe for her, just as Mohan had predicted. Her father’s actions had condemned her.

Already, she was being watched. Higgins was certain there were others watching Anjuli’s house and movements. And Higgins was a man of almost supernatural instincts.

Francis stepped across the threshold, taking care not to disturb the rice powder design on the ground. Circumstances denied him the ability to respect her wishes. He could at least respect her customs.

Coconut palms framed the edges of the courtyard. He circled clockwise, the auspicious direction, around the holy basil plant in its raised brick pedestal in the center of the yard. Its spicy tang mingled in the air with the scent of—roses.

His head snapped around and he paused for a moment at the sight of a single rose bush tucked between two mango trees. Tall wooden posts shaded it on three sides from both the sun and the sea air. English roses. It was like suddenly coming across an old friend. He brushed his fingertips across the mass of scarlet blooms and then touched his hand to his eyes.

She sat there as regal as a queen. Her eyes remained cool and distant, fixed just over his shoulder. Maybe she had not believed he would return for her. After all, she did not know he had left Higgins to watch over her. She might have thought he had abandoned her.

He was close enough now to smell the faint fragrance of jasmine from the flowers in her hair. He was unable to stop his heart from giving a quick thud. She had haunted his dreams for weeks, sometimes weeping, at other times a temptress. He had planned for days what he would say to her, how charmingly and politely he would greet her. He had considered with great care how to convince her of his good intentions and her danger. But his brain and his tongue failed him at the last moment.

He spoke her name without thinking. “Anjuli.” And was startled to discover how much of his emotions it revealed.

She stood. The delicate folds of the sari slithered down around her. It was as blue as the sky above them and the sea beyond. The curves of her throat, arms and waist gleamed against it like pale gold.

“Francis.”

The sound of his given name snapped his eyes up to her face. She had used his name.  Not his title or the even colder Sir, but his own name. She thought of him as Francis. It gave him hope.

He smiled as he put out his hand. She hesitated a moment, but clasped it. He felt a strange temptation to tug her close and laugh. Then she stopped all his foolish thoughts with a single word.

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The very first novel I started writing, way back in my freshman year of college, still remains unfinished. It’s a romance novel, set during the Regency era in England. For those who are unaware of the immense world of romance novels, the Regency is the time period in which Jane Austen wrote, and remains a very popular setting for romance novels. I am convinced I must finish this novel in order to really begin a career as a writer. Even this blog is an experiment in getting the writing juices flowing so I can finally finish this thing.

I’ll post chapters from time to time, and you can judge for yourself whether it’s even worth finishing!

Chapter One

Madras, India, November 1813

The arrival of a lone Englishman caused an immediate stir down the Third Cross Street of Wallajah High Road. He strolled slowly down the street, glancing neither left or right, up or down. It was only a few minutes past sunrise.

The women of the neighborhood paused for a collective instant as they washed and swept smooth the dark packed earth in front of their doorways. In synchronized movement, their sidelong glances swiveled from the Englishman to the gray stone verandah of a graceful house at the other end of the street.

The elongated windows of the house were shuttered. Two white wicker chairs were set out between the carved stone pillars of the verandah. A young woman already occupied one of the chairs. Her long black braid of hair and deep blue sari gleamed gently in the growing light.

Anjuli sat so still that she looked etched from the same stone as the pillars. The morning sun warmed her bare feet. The last echoes of the dawn adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, dewed the air to the west with lingering music. From the south came the faint peal of temple bells, as if in answer.

Her neighbors filled their hands with white rice powder and clicked their tongues against their teeth in silent speculation. The women bent to draw kolams—intricate geometric patterns comprised of dots and curving loops—on the smooth dark earth in front of their doorways. It always pleased Anjuli that this Hindu ritual accompanied the Muslim prayers every morning. The combination of the two different traditions evoked a profound sense of harmony in her.

Anjuli eased her grip on the wicker chair. He had come, she thought. He had come. Even the most observant onlooker would not have known how frantically Anjuli’s heart beat against her breast, a wild bird trying to fly from its cage.

Outwardly, she looked cool and composed, a slim, straight-backed young woman with dark, deep-set eyes under delicately arched brows. Yet hers was not a face intended by its creator to be serious or mysterious. Not with such shining eyes and soft cheeks, dimples dancing right against the edges of a full, wide mouth and a dainty nose that tilted ever so slightly up at the end. It was a face made for mischief and merry laughter. But it showed little evidence of either.

Anjuli smoothed the letter in her lap. His surprisingly elegant handwriting sprawled so boldly across the page it had nearly worn through the thick paper. She traced the words with her fingers. The letter started with casual pleasantries and a long apology for the delay in corresponding. The most important sentences took up little space on the page: I will return in a few days. Be ready. We leave for England on the next ship.

Anjuli told herself she had no intention of leaving. Nearly three months had passed since her father’s death. Nearly three months since the night at Fort St. George when her life changed forever. Since the night she had met her Englishman.

Her Englishman. She still called him that whenever she thought of him. She even dreamt most nights of how he had held her while she cried. He had smelled like soap and sandalwood and something wild.

He must be insane. She could not leave her home, her country, her entire way of life to follow him to a place she would be even less welcome than she was here. What had happened that night had been necessary, she would not deny it now. She had agreed for her father’s sake. And her Englishman had agreed, she assumed, because he owed her father his life.

She had expected nothing from him. But he had surprised her with his kindness. Just a little careless kindness, the same as that one might show a stranger’s child or pet. It had been enough to make her pour her heart out into his lap. And he had left her the next morning. How could he even imagine she would go anywhere with him now?

He was dangerous, her Englishman. She could not trust herself alone with him. She had already shamed herself once. She would not be so foolish a second time. Not while the only world she had ever known watched her with such relentless eyes. She would hear what he had to say in full view of the street outside.

One way to combat the intense scrutiny she endured every day was to live as transparently as possible. So she had learned to be as clear as water, as still as glass. But these past few months had proved very hard. There were a great many whispers about her father’s death. There were a great many questions about why she still stayed.

Her brother had reappeared only to perform the funeral rites and cremate their father. He gave her nothing but careless smiles and false reassurances before he disappeared again. It did not cause her too much surprise or pain. He had been with some army or the other nearly her whole life. Anjuli thought of him as a summer storm, neither predictable nor reliable but always welcome.

She had struggled to maintain her household and live on alone, though she was a half-caste, half-Indian, half-English, fatherless, brotherless, unprotected, perhaps unwanted. It became harder and harder for her to wake up every morning, to eat, to endure the sneers of her detractors and accept the sympathy of her well-wishers with the same cool composure. It was pride, only stubborn pride that kept her from despair—a solemn promise shouted from somewhere deep inside her that no one would break her with pity or hate. But bit by bit she had worn down, until it took all her strength just to hold her head up every day and put one foot in front of the other to walk.

Her Englishman’s letter arrived in the midst of her troubles. And much to her shame, Anjuli could not deny a certain amount of relief as well as horror at the thought of it. Temptation as well as fear. She armored herself against such feelings by dressing traditionally. The blue silk sari was one of her favorites. Its heavy double weave, with the length woven in one color and the width in another, gleamed the pure blue of the morning sky from one angle and the shifting turquoise of the sea from the other. A thick thread of gold border banded the hem and flashed in the sun.

She had even worn her best jewelry, complete with glittering gold bangles and silver anklets studded with tinkling bells. She had tucked a chain of fresh jasmine buds into her hair, just at the nape of her neck. She had placed a small dot of vermillion powder between her brows.

Dressed like this, she could fool the old Brahmin matriarchs at the temple. They smiled at each other with pleasure when they saw her. One of them commented on the richness of her fair coloring. Another remarked favorably on the sweetness of her demeanor. Like the goddess Lakshmi herself, they agreed, and fought jokingly over who had first claim to her as a prospective daughter-in-law. Until that is, someone whispered to them about her birth. In the end, no matter how you looked or acted, people only cared about what you were not.

And she was not just a Brahmin girl or an English girl. She was both. So she was neither.

She did not need the old women at the temple to remind her of this. It was a lesson she had learned quite young and at a very high price.

*     *     *     *

It was the first and last time Anjuli saw her mother in a dress. And the first and last time Anjuli herself wore one. Her mother dressed her very carefully in a pink dress with three rows of lace flounces at the hem and puff sleeves embellished with real seed pearls. Anjuli was even allowed to wear her hair in loose curls, with a matching pink ribbon.

At first the party was lovely. Everyone there seemed excited to see Anjuli’s mother. Numerous grand ladies and several jolly gentlemen with giant moustaches pinched Anjuli’s cheeks, admired her pink dress and exclaimed over her vivid coloring.

Then a tall lady with a haughty face and cruel eyes arrived. She stared at Anjuli’s mother for a long moment before she began moving through the room, smiling and whispering. The smile had sharp edges. A cascade of murmurs and raised eyebrows followed.

“An Indian!”

“But the little girl looks so charming. Who would ever have thought?”

“My dear, I knew there was something sly about it. All those black curls on the little girl.”

“Did she really think no one would find out?”

At the time, Anjuli did not understand the full meaning of those words. She only knew, with a sensitive child’s empathic instincts, that the tall lady meant harm and the party had turned dangerous. Everyone still smiled and nodded. But Anjuli now gripped her mother’s skirt with a strange, protective fear.

Tears filled her mother’s green eyes, making them glitter like jewels. She held Anjuli’s hand so tightly it hurt. They left the party shortly after. No one said goodbye to them.

They were caught in a torrential downpour on the way home. The rain masked her mother’s tears. It destroyed Anjuli’s curls.

“This will be our secret, Juli,” her mother said, hugging her. “It was very silly of me to go. We shan’t tell your father or brother. Men would never understand. A woman sometimes wants to wear a pretty dress and take her little girl out to be admired.”

A few days later, both Anjuli and her mother contracted scarlet fever. Anjuli survived. Her mother did not. She never told their secret to anyone. She had never told anything to anyone.  Except to her Englishman.

*     *     *     *

The sound of the gate latch flung Anjuli out of her reverie. She took a deep breath to steady herself. From a distance he looked like any other Englishman in his buff-colored pantaloons, cutaway black coat and soft leather boots. Except that even from a distance she felt the vibrant pull of the energy he exuded. It rippled out from him to blur the edges of her vision.

She watched with dazed eyes as he swung open the heavy iron gates. He stepped around the kolam in front of her threshold, careful not to disturb the rice powder design. So he had learned something of their traditions in these past few months. The sharp eyes of her neighbors would not miss this show of respect. Maybe it would help leaven the inevitable gossip about his visit with some kindness.

As he circled closer, Anjuli saw he had changed in other ways too. Englishmen usually turned the color of boiled beets under the Indian sun. Only her Englishman glowed a golden brown. The sun had burnished his thick, pale hair to a rich bronze. Even his eyes, a cool blue-gray like steel in her memory, glinted now with golden sparks. Like silver and gold melted together.

Why had he returned?

“Anjuli.”

His voice remained the same, low and resonant, with greater emphasis on consonants than vowels. And full of such warmth and appeal that her name sounded like a benediction. Just so might a returning sailor, after years at sea, have said: “Home.”

Anjuli shivered despite the combined heat of his voice and the morning sun. She kept her eyes fixed just over his shoulder, so she would not have to look at him directly. In a smooth movement that masked the slight trembling of her legs, she stood and dropped his letter behind her, onto the chair.

The silken folds of her sari whispered down around her. The delicate material clung to her from the growing humidity. The thin blouse she wore under it bared her midriff. She had never found that a source of discomfort until she felt his eyes flicker over the exposed curve of her waist.

She kept her own eyes riveted on the courtyard behind him. But she did not need to look at him to know what he was thinking. From the moment she met him she had sensed his emotions as if she inhabited them. Or as if they possessed her.

He was happy to see her. He was even—admiring. But he was also very determined. Every inch of his long body was rigid with purpose. Even the faint white line of an old scar that slashed across his left eyebrow stretched taut and inflexible. He could be no more than a handful of years older than her own one and twenty. Yet he had a veneer of hardness and discipline that bespoke an entirely different lifetime.

“Francis,” she said at last, forcing his eyes to move up to her face.

It was the first time she had ever used his name. It was not a symbol of intimacy, she told herself. In India, one addressed only one’s equals or inferiors in age or rank or class by their given names. He had used hers. She would show him she was no less than he.

But her defiant greeting only seemed to make him relax. His mouth crinkled up at its sculpted edges. His metal colored eyes suddenly glittered more gold than steel. He put out a hand in belated greeting. She shifted her eyes to it, struck anew by its unexpected beauty, strong and lean, with long fingers and well-groomed nails. She had turned her face into it and cried her heart out not so long ago. What an unexpected friend he had proved, even if only for one night.

She extended her own hand to clasp his before she remembered the watching eyes of her neighbors. The sudden movement caused a long gold chain around her neck, hidden carefully under the layers of her sari, to sway gently. A flat gold pendant stamped with the symbols of her family deity and a bulky ring marked with a coat of arms, chimed against each other. Her mangalsutra—her wedding pendant in accordance with the Hindu rituals, and her wedding ring—to mark the completion of the Church of England ceremony.

His palm burned against hers. Francis. Her Englishman. Her husband.

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