CHAPTER ONE

Mazagaon Port, Bombay, December 1850

 

Seth Mayhew wouldn’t call it a curse.

But a man on his 13th sail couldn’t help but wonder.

Damned if he hadn’t lived this before. From where he stood on the deck of the HMS Isabella, Bombay might have been Brazil. The same briny stink of the harbor. The stray dogs nosing the pier. The carts, the cargo, the cries of the dockmen—all agitated and out of sorts like the arrival of a fifteen-hundred-ton steam­ship somehow took ’em by surprise.

It was just like every port in Brazil. Like a remem­bering. Like the start of every other expedition that had ever failed.

But Seth wouldn’t call it a curse.

This time, he wouldn’t dare.

Under his boots, the ship steadied entering the still waters of the harbor, same as the clippers he’d sailed to Santos, Recife, and Paranaguá had done. After three months at sea, he had that same urge to jump the rail, to swim for shore, to race on dry land as far as his legs and lungs would carry him.

Christ, yes, Bombay might have been Brazil.

If not for the hundred love-starved bachelors wait­ing in welcome.

“You ever seen a sorrier sight ’n that?” Eddie, the young cabin boy from Dover, slouched on the rail beside him and spat overboard. “All them hot-arsed English come for a look at our girls like they was buying cattle. A man’s meant to have dignity. If it was me, and I was wanting a wife, she’d not see me standing down there.”

Seth could say nothing to that. He’d be the first man forward if he could afford to keep a wife. But he was only an explorer, and this expedition held no promise of profit.

“It’s a queer sight, I give you that,” he said.

“Them black suits don’t make no sense for India,” Eddie said. “Or them silk chokers and beaver hats.”

“Well, there’s an English gent for you. Like they’re strolling the Strand.” Seth eyed the mob, envious of their tailored suits despite the heat. “Shows why they’re here, I suppose. For a first look at Englishwomen fresh off the boat. These men’ll not be going native—not in their dress and not with the local women.”

“No sense in any of ’em,” Eddie snarled.

Seth had to grin. Only a shirttail lad of sixteen could muster that level of scorn. “None I can see.” He elbowed the lad gently and winked. “But then, I’ve always been democratic where women are concerned.”

He thought that was clever enough, but Eddie only scowled down at the mob like all forty-four ladies onboard were his kin.

Seth sighed. “Cheer yourself, lad. East India’s been shipping our girls here for a couple hundred years to wed their men, and that won’t be changing today.”

“No matter to me. Wasn’t one that didn’t chuck me a shoulder if I said a word to ’em.”

“You know those ladies couldn’t fraternize with the likes of us. They have to keep their reputations, not arrive all sullied. Besides”—he lowered his voice—“their mums likely warned them about sailors like you.”

That was said in jest, but Eddie puffed up. “There’s truth in that, I suppose.”

Erasing his grin, Seth nodded manfully and let it alone. The boy was of a tender age. He’d not yet learned the kind of girl he might win. Hell, if a sea­man’s life was all the boy had ahead of him, he’d not be marrying at all. And Seth knew himself that wasn’t a hope that died easy.

The ship listed and the grim thought scattered. The tugs were nudging the ship into its berth, inch by maddening inch.

Seth gripped the rail and pushed his body up and down as he waited, relishing the burn in his shoulders. He’d found all sorts of ways to take his exercise these months at sea. Seemed the only way to keep from chasing all the questions in his head in a circle, like: Was he too late? Would Bombay prove the curse?

Was Georgie still alive?

He gripped the rail tighter and kept on.

Down on the wharf, a fair number of the men held up name signs. There might be distant family and fiancés among them for the lady passengers. And for him, hopefully one translator.

Tom Grant was supposed to meet him, but damned if Seth would find him easy. The man may be fluent in three Indian dialects and supervisor of an East India Company plantation, but there was no knowing if he was clever enough to bring a sign of his own.

Seth pushed off the rail and patted his coat pocket. The letter crinkled in answer.

“Well now, lad.” Seth picked up his bag and shook Eddie’s hand. “This is good-bye. Safe travels. And don’t you go ruining any of these women before they get a chance to get themselves wed.” He winked at the boy. “After that, they’re fair game.”

“I won’t.” Eddie’s smile faded. “And…good luck finding your sister.”

Surprised, Seth stared down at the boy. He’d only told a couple of his bunkmates.

The boy shuffled his feet. “I wondered why you was sailing on account of your not looking like a Company man. I thought you might be a soldier, but soldiers don’t book steerage and eat mess with the crew.” He shrugged, shrinking farther into his shirt. “I didn’t tell nobody. I just wondered.”

“It’s all right, lad.” Seth patted him on the shoulder but the boy didn’t raise his head. This was why he’d wanted it kept dark. Knowing such things was nothing but a burden. “Thank you, Eddie. And don’t worry. I’ll find her.”

And he would find her. Finding was what he did.

With a final wave, Seth hiked his bag onto his shoulder and headed below deck to the gangplank—and saw he wasn’t getting off this damn boat as quick as he’d hoped. The four dozen ladies were queued to disembark, so he retreated a step.

So these are the venture girls…

He’d not seen the women the entire sail— hoped not to see them at all. Booked steerage as he’d been, and not allowed aft of the paddle boxes, it had been impossible anyway.

No, he didn’t want to see them. Their bonnets and ruffles and ribbons were too much of England, of home. Most of them would never get back.

And some wouldn’t survive the year.

On the wharf below, the bachelors hushed with anticipation. With this welcome, wasn’t any wonder these ladies did the long sea to marry. In England, men with the blunt to keep a family were worse than scarce. The women at the back of the line turned to examine him— worn boots, secondhand suit, overgrown hair. The speculation in their eyes dimmed and he tried not to mind.

“Afternoon, ladies.” He put on his best smile. Some dropped their gazes, some pressed against their corsets like they’d forgotten how to breathe. All of them were scared- looking.

No, he didn’t want to see this.

Beneath their pale skin, Seth saw the prettiness. He couldn’t help it, even when his heart wasn’t in it. Well. Georgie always did call him the Worst Flirt in the Midlands. But that had never been accurate.

He’d always been the best.

“Don’t I hear the gentlemen’s hearts cracking from here,” he teased, and the women giggled nervously.

“Careful not to smile at ’em, ladies, or you’ll starta stampede.”

The girls laughed more easily, a few of them blushing. Damn their fathers. Did they even know what their daughters would face here?

The gangplank connected to the quay with a hard clang and the bonnets swiveled around. It was time. Slow as a march to the gallows, the ladies shuffled across the plank and stepped onto the dock.

And then matters went ass over elbow.

Eager bachelors swarmed the ladies. Stevedores shoved the Indian servants aside. Ragged beggars—some missing limbs, some crawling on the ground— pleaded for coin and food.

“Sahib…”

The instant Seth stepped foot on land, a clawed hand tugged at his sleeve. He followed the wiry arm to the bent head of an old man.

Sahib,” the old man pleaded.

Automatically, Seth reached for a few copper paisa but a white hand shot out to stay him.

“You mustn’t give them anything,” a mustached man said. “It only makes them more aggressive.”

Aggressive? The old man couldn’t stand straight and had an eye cloudy with cataracts. Seth gave him a silver anna instead.

The crush of bodies swayed him, but he’d never been afraid of people. The venture girls, however, were huddled as close together as their wide skirts allowed.

Indian servants shooed the beggars away. Black-suited Englishmen corralled the ladies like sheepdogs. A rumbling din of male voices advised the ladies, consoled them—badly, it seemed—and underneath it all, a calm, crisp voice…

“Ladies?”

A woman’s voice. Sweet and low and nearly swallowed in the fray.

Maybe it was because his explorer’s senses were honed to seek the rare, the anomalies in nature, but Seth trailed that voice to a venture girl twenty feet away. She wore a trim white jacket and green skirt with starry, white flowers all over it. Her sun helmet concealed all but a bit of brown hair.

“Ladies, as no one has told us yet what to do, if you are to be met by someone, would you move to this end?” She gestured and the ladies shuffled to do her bidding, obedient as soldiers.

Seth jerked to follow, then paused. He was to meet someone. Should he wait with them?

A small wave of her hand and the ladies leaned forward in attention. He did, too.

“And the others can wait here for Captain Travers,” she said. “He will accompany you to the customs house.” The women sorted themselves, fear in every pair of eyes clinging to their officer.

Seth dragged in a lungful of air that didn’t ease the tightness in his chest. Wasn’t any of his business.

And wasn’t a thing he could do to help.

He turned to plunge into the crowd, but then the little officer spoke again.

“We are here, ladies,” she said gently. “And we are fine.”

The words were plain, but it was like she’d hushed the whole world. He didn’t want to, but he looked again. The venture girls stood in two close circles, their small valises and parasols clutched to their chests, and watched the chaos around them with wide eyes.

But they kept their chins up now.

For the first time in months, a real smile curved his lips. People needed someone to depend on. Like those ladies depended on that little officer.

And she was little, at least to him. She wouldn’t stand any taller than his chin and his hands could span her waist. But little or not, she wore that dainty, braided jacket like a captain of the Eleventh Hussars. There wasn’t a wrinkle on her skirts or wayward crease in its folds. And that straight spine was all the sight he had of her— she didn’t fidget and she didn’t turn.

Composed, capable, orderly-like. He’d drive a woman like that to Bedlam.

But he fell a little bit in love with her anyway. He was bumped from behind. The mustache-man angling for a closer look. “Give the ladies their breathing room, mate,” Seth said. “They might like a bit of time to repair themselves.”

The man swung about. “You traveled with them, didn’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“Did you learn any names? Which are the prime articles?”

“The prime— ? Hell, I don’t know.”

The man turned around to survey the girls. “Not that I expect them all to be handsome. They couldn’t find a husband back home, could they? But taking an ugly wife…” He grimaced, then squared his shoulders. “I mean to have one, just the same.”

Seth stared down at the man and muttered, “There you go, mate. Words to set a lady’s heart aflutter.”

Irritated, Seth waded against the stream of bachelors closing in on the ladies. Wasn’t any of his business.

The men holding signs had formed a line and were shuffling toward the ladies to be claimed. They obeyed the little officer, too. His translator might be among them, so he read his way through the crush. MISS EUNICE SIMMS…MISS LOUISE ALPERT—

Ah, here! CLAIMING WILLIAM REPTON AND— and?— MISS W. ADAMS.

The man holding the card eyed him suspiciously. So this was his translator. Brown hair, spectacles, younger than he’d expected. But he looked clever. He’d do.

“Tom Grant?” Seth asked.

“I am. You’re Will Repton?”

Seth grinned. “For your purposes, I am.” He shook his hand. “I’m Seth Mayhew. You’ll be working for me instead.”

“I— ”

“This explains it.” Seth handed him Will’s letter. “Will couldn’t leave England on account of his being leg- shackled and expecting a little baby. But Georgie’s my sister after all, and the orphan in Tibet is who she was after, so I’m here and Will’s not. It’s all a bit Hamlet- without- the- prince, but there it is.”

Tom Grant blinked behind his spectacles. “Who are you?”

Maybe he just looked clever.

“Seth May— ” He never was skilled at explaining. “Read the letter, mate.”

Tom Grant passed the sign to him, cracked open the letter, and began to frown. That frown wasn’t how Seth wanted to start their partnership, but the man had agreed to the job, and would be earning a hell of a salary for the effort.

But Tom’s expression wasn’t growing any happier as he started page two.

“That letter explains it all.” Seth flapped the sign against his thigh, waiting. “’Course it was Will who raised the funds to sail here hoping to— ”

“To find the lost orphan. I know,” Tom said, his voice dropping to a grumble. “Another survivor of that massacre.” He didn’t bother looking up from the letter— which was damn provoking.

“You don’t think the baby survived, do you?”

“I think Will Repton survived a nightmare, and I think he needs to believe he wasn’t alone.”

“That baby lived. My sister crossed into Tibet to search for her.”

That stopped Tom’s reading. “Right.” He lowered the letter a fraction to push his spectacles higher. “Sorry. The latter is true enough, in any case. So when you lost communication with your sister, you persuaded Will to let you come in his place?”

Seth nodded. “Would’ve gone off my head not being able to search for Georgie.”

Tom’s frown deepened, and he went back to staring at that letter like he was hoping the words would change.

It was good that Tom’s help had been secured in advance. Finding another translator wouldn’t have been easy. Seth’s rank as an explorer- for- hire wouldn’t open any doors with the Company men. Even when he’d been under the employ of East India, they hadn’t treated him much better than a mule driver.

Or the mule.

Tom flipped the letter over and started reading from the beginning. Again.

With a sigh, Seth dropped his bag at his feet to wait— and remembered the sign: CLAIMING MISS W. ADAMS. Tom Grant was collecting one of the venture girls then.

W? The man couldn’t write her name in full? Wasn’t any of his business.

Meaning to be helpful, Seth held the sign high and waited.

***

“Mina!” Emma clutched her arm. “I see him. I see your Thomas Grant.”

Mina’s stomach rolled. Thomas was here. Of course he was— of course he would be. If only the ground would steady. Her sister’s sudden grab had nearly toppled her. Ninety- nine days on a boat and she couldn’t seem to lock her knees.

Mina reached into her skirt pocket and squeezed the stone in her hand. Through her lace glove, the quartz was as cool as if it still held the weather of England within it.

Emma’s blue eyes shone— and that was nearly all Mina was sensible of. Distantly, Mina felt the sun on her neck. More sharply, a bead of sweat trickled to the small of her back. Too warm…

Emma had suggested she wear her green dress to meet Mr. Grant— the pattern of starry woodruff reminded Mina of home and it was the finest of her day dresses. But it was too warm. Especially with the cholera belt— no, the healthful flannel cummerbund she wore.

Oh dear, all her gowns would be too warm.