With only one day until the new year (and our Orchid Affair excerpt!), here’s a blast from the very recent past, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, which came out in January 2010. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, does it?
Blood Lily will be back on shelves as a paperback, with a snazzy new cover, on January 4, 2011.
In contrast to some of the lighter passages from the earlier books, my favorite section from Blood Lily is much more emotionally fraught– not surprising when you consider the character of Penelope, a woman at war with herself and most of the people around her. Penelope’s outrageous behavior has already seen her married in haste and carted off to India. Now, all but alone in a foreign country, she’s facing the repercussions of her careless choices.
Penelope’s and Freddy’s match is one marriage of convenience that doesn’t turn into a happily ever after. Penelope returns to her bungalow in search of a shawl to find her husband actively engaged with a mistress she hadn’t known he had. Being Penelope, she doesn’t mince words.
“Um, Pen.” Freddy pinned a wobbly smile on his face. “Didn’t expect to see you here.
“I don’t expect you did,” said Penelope distantly. “You might at least have secured the screens.”
She looked contemptuously at the woman on the floor, who returned the expression with interest, no mean feat while lying entirely unclothed on one’s back. But, then, thought Penelope with freezing scorn, she had probably had some practice at that.
“Um.” Freddy had the grace to turn a deeper color of red, though he still contrived to look more affronted than affronting. Ignoring the woman at his feet, he cast Penelope a reproachful look. “Shouldn’t you be watching the mummers?”
“Why should I, when there’s such entertainment to be had here?” Without waiting for an answer, she said, in a cold, hard voice, “I want her out.”
It was unclear how much English the courtesan understood, but she certainly understood that. Drawing a length of cloth over her nakedness, she sat back on her heels with the expression of one prepared to engage in a lengthy spot of squatter’s rights.
“Now, Pen—” Freddy held out a conciliatory hand, the same hand that had, a moment before, been supporting some of the more rounded parts of the other woman’s anatomy.
Penelope looked at it with an expression of pure loathing. “I want her out. Out now.”
Freddy made a shooing motion—not to his mistress, to Penelope. “Let’s discuss this outside, shall we?” he said hopefully, shoving his shirt into his breeches as he spoke. Penelope was surprised he knew how. She had only ever seen him remove clothing, usually in conditions of extreme haste. Not that he always removed all his clothing. Or hers. Sometimes . . .
Penelope yanked back her wandering thoughts. What did it matter? It wasn’t as though she could stake her claim by a catalogue of the quantity and variety of his lovemaking. It wasn’t a matter of earning one’s position, so many tumbles to security.
Letting herself be herded through the screen, she said, in a tight voice, “You can’t install a mistress in the same house as your wife. It’s in poor taste, if nothing else.”
“She’s not a mistress,” countered Freddy, with a bright-eyed enthusiasm that might have been either inspiration or afterglow. “She’s a bibi.”
“Calling it by another language,” said Penelope, through clenched teeth, “does not render it any less offensive. I should have your balls for this. Oh, don’t look so shocked. We both know you have them. And now,” she said, flinging an arm in the direction of the screen, “so does she. And why,” she continued, her voice rising dangerously, “am I the one standing outside like a . . . like a beggar, while that strumpet gets to lounge about inside?”
Looking nervously over his shoulder, Freddy made soothing, hushing noises, as though she were a horse who had just balked at a fence. “Don’t cut up rough, old girl. This is just how it’s done out here.”
“Not in my house, it’s not,” Penelope said militantly.
“Don’t,” warned Penelope. “Not when you’ve already spent my dowry. Possibly on drabs like her. How many have there been, Freddy? None on the boat, I suppose. You would have had to ship them in on little dinghies and that wouldn’t have been terribly convenient. But in Calcutta, there were all those nights you were playing cards with Fiske. What were you really playing at, Freddy?”
It had been a bolt in the dark. Penelope hadn’t expected confirmation until she got it, in the shifting of his eyes from hers, the working of his mouth as he tried to contrive a creditable explanation.
Penelope’s stomach contracted as though she had been punched. Her tongue felt too thick for her mouth; she could feel it gagging her.
Freddy’s hands moved in quick, impatient gestures as he worked himself into a soothing state of self-righteousness indignation. “This is absurd,” he blustered. “Why are we fighting about this? I’m married to you, however it came about. Anyone else is only a—”
“Diversion?” supplied Penelope, forcing her too-heavy tongue to move.
“Precisely,” he said, nodding emphatically, pleased that she understood so well. “It isn’t that you aren’t, well, satisfactory, old thing—”
“Much obliged, I’m sure,” said Penelope, white-lipped.
“—but a man does need a little variety. It’s like having toast for breakfast every morning.” Freddy warmed to his theme. “Toast is all very well and good, perfectly filling and all that, but sometimes you want a nice, big piece of ham.”
“Which one of us is the toast?” asked Penelope. “Never mind. Don’t answer that. Next I suppose you’ll be wanting marmalade, too.”
“I didn’t mean it literally,” said Freddy in a long-suffering way.
Penelope’s voice was drier than burnt toast. “I know. Now that you’ve taken up the zenana, where am I to put my concubine?”
Freddy mustered a very credible “ha-ha,” although he was still clearly suffering from the aftereffects of having been discovered in flagrante delicto.
“What makes you think I’m joking?”
Freddy delivered a stinging swat to her backside, a gesture with him that passed for affection. Lust involved other parts of the anatomy. And apparently other women, as well. “You’re a good sort, all in all, Pen. You know how the game is played.”
Penelope stood stiff and unresponsive as he slung an arm around her shoulders in a quick, careless hug, a curiously sexless gesture, the embrace of a comrade, not a lover. A lie, like everything else. They had never been comrades, only lovers. And now not even that. She could smell the scent of that woman on him, all flowers and musk, warm skin and sex.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “I do.”
If Freddy had been a wiser man, he would have been very, very afraid.
Not being a wiser man, Freddy let out his breath in a gusty sigh of relief.
“I’ll buy you some emeralds,” he promised. “They’ll look smashing with your hair. What do you say to that?”
“Smashing,” Penelope echoed. “What a splendid arrangement for me—she gets all the work, and I get all the pay.”
Freddy had the sense to look wary, as though he intuited that he had been insulted, but wasn’t quite sure how and didn’t like to inquire. “Quite so, quite so,” he said with forced heartiness.
Gathering the rags of her dignity about her, Penelope took a step out of reach, towards the opening in the shrubbery through which she had entered a lifetime before.
“Don’t be too long, will you, darling?” she said. “Fiske and that lot are looking for you. And we must keep up appearances, mustn’t we?”
If Freddy recognized that her voice was several degrees colder than Norfolk in winter, he gave no sign. “I told Mother I could have done worse than to marry you,” he said cheerfully.
High praise, indeed.
Penelope didn’t wait to see where he went. She didn’t need to. He had doubtless returned to his mistress—to pick up where he had left off? Or to apologize to her for his shrew of a wife, soothing her wounded feelings with promises of jewelry. What would he offer her? Sapphires? Rubies? Or would he buy them both emeralds, and get a discount for the bulk purchase, two women for the price of one? Penelope found she was shaking so hard she could hardly walk, shaking as though she had contracted a chill, even though there was a fine sheen of sweat on her skin, despite the pleasant cool of the evening air.
The worst of it was that there was nothing she could do. Oh, she supposed she could cry a headache, but why give Freddy the satisfaction? Penelope plucked with restless fingers at the fabric of her dress as she walked. She would have to go back and flutter her lashes and hang on Freddy’s arm as though nothing at all were out of the ordinary, as if he hadn’t delivered the crushing insult of installing a mistress under the same roof as his wife. The irregular circumstances of their marriage provided Freddy all the license he needed to do whatever he liked. “But I married you,” he would say if she complained, and all the triple-chinned tabbies scattered in Residencies across India would agree with him that it was more than she had deserved. She was hoist by her own petard, whatever a petard might be.
The massive joke of it all was that nothing had happened on that fatal Twelfth Night nine months ago. Well, not precisely nothing. But Freddy certainly hadn’t gotten what he’d been so ardently angling for. There had been kisses in plenty, kisses and illicit caresses, and fumbling at the hem of her petticoat that she had thwarted with a wiggle and a throaty laugh. She had looked laughing at the obvious evidence of desire outlined against the tight knit of his breeches, slipping away with a kiss and a promise—well, the promise of a promise. Just enough to keep him intrigued. She had left him cursing behind her, alternately cursing and pleading, hot for another assignation and not at all in possession of what he had come for.
But that didn’t matter, did it? It wasn’t what had happened or hadn’t happened that mattered; the mere fact of her having been known to be inside a bedroom with him had been enough to damn her. She was used goods and Freddy was accounted a gentleman for condescending to marry her once he had already sampled the wares.
Penelope wished, with a burning intensity that balled her hands into fists, that she had allowed him under her skirts that night. She wished she had done everything people whispered of her and more. If she was a whore, shouldn’t she at least have the pleasure of it?
Her nails cut purpled crescents into the skin of her palm.
She had left her gloves back in the bungalow, she realized. Never mind that. She wasn’t going back for them. The thought of having to go back to the bungalow, knowing that that thing was under the same roof, made her stomach cramp with physical pain.
Someone else was out walking in the night, walking with a ferocity that equaled her own, walking like someone trying to escape the devil—or with the devil in him.
Apparently, the entertainment didn’t agree with Captain Reid either. Perhaps he had a bibi hidden away somewhere, too, thought Penelope savagely, tucked away like summer ices stored in a nest of chipped ice, waiting to be taken out and licked to melting, all that fleeting sweetness hidden and hoarded and enjoyed in gluttonous wantonness in a cool and scented room.
Penelope found that she was shaking again, as with the ague.
His eyes narrowing on her, Captain Reid took a quick step forward. “Lady Frederick? Are you unwell?”
“You needn’t concern yourself.” Penelope rubbed her hands hard against her upper arms to warm herself, feeling the flesh cold and clammy beneath her palms. “It’s only a flesh wound. Nothing mortal.”
Captain Reid didn’t seem convinced. “Is there anything I can do for you? Bring you?”
Her dignity? She didn’t think she could get that back, not now, at any rate.
“I’d like to walk a bit. Walk with me, Captain Reid? It’s too lovely a night to be wasted.”
There was an edge to Lady Frederick’s voice that Alex didn’t like, but he fell obediently into step all the same, rather than leave her to walk alone. It was a lovely night, as she had claimed. There had been a ruined pleasure garden on the site where the Residency stood and James had taken it and enlarged it, adding groves of peach and mango, banana trees and toddy palms. Night-blooming flowers lined the paths, perfuming the air with their sweetness. Moonlight silvered the tall pillar of James’s pigeon tower, turning it into something out of myth or fantasy, a ruined palace for a sleeping princess, to be wooed with birdsong and moonshine and borne triumphantly home on a palanquin woven of maiden dreams.
Lady Frederick’s dreams were obviously not pleasant ones. Despite her lip service to the beauties of the scenery, Lady Frederick didn’t seem to notice them. She moved by his side like a sleepwalker, unspeaking, unseeing, caught in a cage of her own thoughts. From time to time, she breathed in deeply, raising her hands to rub them against her arms like Lady Macbeth’s trying to scrub out blood.
“Are you cold?” he asked. “Would you like to go back?”
Beneath lowered lashes, Lady Frederick’s eyes glittered amber. “Why? Am I keeping you from your Lizzy?” she said silkily.
“My who?” Alex tried to figure out what she could be talking about and came up blank. “The only Lizzy of my acquaintance is my sister. I don’t imagine she’s missing me at the moment.”
Lady Frederick stared up at him. A slow smile spread across her face. “I imagine she embroiders you lovely handkerchiefs.”
Those blasted handkerchiefs. He’d had more than his fair share of teasing for those. They had been a birthday present from Kat years ago, marked in hair with his initials. Kat had not been amused when he had wanted to know why she hadn’t just used thread. If he couldn’t appreciate a sentimental gesture, she had told him, she certainly wasn’t going to waste her hair on him, so there.
“No,” he said. “That’s Kat. My other sister. If Lizzy knows how to thread a needle, she’s never shown it.”
Lady Frederick touched a finger lightly to the corner of his lips. “You start to smile when you talk about your family. It suits you.”
Her finger burned against his lips like a brand. Feeling as though he had just drunk too deeply of arrack, Alex stumbled a step back. “Lady Frederick—”
“Call me Penelope,” she invited, strolling forward for every step he took back, like a tiger prowling after its prey.
It wouldn’t, Alex thought, be all that terrible to be caught.
She was married, Alex reminded himself. And not to him.
“And scandalize society?” he said with a mildness he was far from feeling. Every sensible instinct he possessed screamed to sprint back towards the Residency before he did something he might regret. Unfortunately, his more sensible instincts were being rapidly shouted down by the rest of him.
Lady Frederick flung out her arms towards the deer park, with its silent audience of sheep and elk and blackbuck. “What society is there to scandalize?”
As if in agreement, a mynah bird gave an emphatic hoot from the branches of a nearby banana tree.
“Your husband,” said Alex bluntly. Lord Frederick struck him as the sort who didn’t have any interest in the contents of his own toy box until he caught someone else playing with them, at which point he would care very, very deeply.
“Oh, Freddy.” Lady Frederick dismissed him with a word, but she stopped her forward progress with the abruptness of a child’s toy pulled back on its string.
“I’m not on such familiar terms with him.”
“Lord Frederick, then, if you please.” Lady Frederick took his measure with a sidelong glance. “But I expect you don’t. He doesn’t please you at all.” In a meditative tone that brought goosefleshto Alex’s arms, she said, “The question is, do I?”
He could feel the tension in the air around them like a premonition of danger. He forced his voice to hardness. “What is this about?”
Lady Frederick wasn’t the least bit put off. Her eyes glinted yellow in the moonlight, tiger’s eyes. “Me. You. A moonlit night. I can think of better uses for it than talking about Freddy. I can think of better uses for it than talking about anything at all.”
She leaned up on her toes, erasing the few inches’ difference in their height. He could feel the brush of her lace frill against his buttons, a startlingly erotic sound in the still night. Her breath whispered across his jaw, a promise of things to come.
An empty promise. It felt practiced. A seduction repeated by rote, no more personal than a tiger’s kill.
Alex rocked back hard on his heels. “What are you trying to do?” he demanded.
“Seduce you, of course,” said Lady Frederick—Penelope—tracing one blunt-nailed finger along his shirtfront. “Is it working?”
If she had looked any lower, she wouldn’t have had to ask that. Alex wondered, with the bit of his brain that remained in proper working order, what in the devil was going on. One minute he had been pacing, brooding about Jack and Cleave and Wellesley, surely the least erotic subject known to man, and the next there was Lady Frederick—Penelope—shimmering among the moonflowers like a vision out of a Mussulman’s heaven. All that was needed were a few piles of cushions and someone playing the zither.
“Is this a game?” he demanded hoarsely.
“It could be,” she said, wetting her lips with her tongue so they glistened in the moonlight. “A very satisfying one.”
Just the way she pronounced the word made him harden.
“You,” he said, feeling like Odysseus tying himself to the mast and plugging his ears against the sirens, “have a husband.”
“Not much of one.” Beneath the seductive purr, there was a definite tinge of pique. Frowning, Alex pulled back. She clapped back on a bright social smile, like a comedienne donning a mask. “Marital fidelity is entirely out of fashion, you know. It wouldn’t do to be less than à la mode.”
Alex looked at her bright smile and her shadowed eyes and knew that she lied. “I don’t believe that. And neither do you.”
Beneath the pretended brightness, her voice was strained, as tense as her shoulders and the odd, watchful glint in her eyes, so foreign to honest desire. There had been rumors of late, in the bazaars, that the new Englishman had taken Nur Bai into keeping—not in hired quarters in the town, with all the inconvenience of having to obtain permission to enter the city after dark, but in his own zenana. Alex had dismissed the rumors as just that, rumors. It just wasn’t done. Not when one had a wife. Discreet rooms in the town, yes. But not in one’s own home. A man would have to hold his wife in utter contempt in order to contemplate a move like that.
Alex looked at Lady Frederick’s pinched, white face and knew that he had been wrong.
“That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Not me, not the moonlight.” He felt vaguely ill himself, with disappointment or disgust or both. Disgust, he told himself. Disgust at Lord Frederick’s wanton cruelty. He had no right to disappointment. “Christ. I should have known.”
“You’ll blaspheme but you won’t indulge in a spot of adultery? I call that hypocritical.” Lady Frederick trailed a finger down his cheek, aiming for his lips.
Alex called it too much wine. Grasping her arm by the wrist, he held it suspended in the air between them. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret in the morning. He’s not worth it.”
Lady Frederick twisted her arm away, taking a step back. Her face was bitter in the darkness. “You mean I’m not worth it.”
“You’re worth ten of him,” he said roughly.
Her lips twisted in a lopsided mockery of a smile. “Very kind of you, Captain Reid. Your condescension overwhelms me.”
Condescension? If she thought that was all it was, she was more naïve than she looked. His body was screaming to reassure her that condescension was the last thing he had on his mind. It might even be called a kindness.
A sick sort of kindness, to use her pain as an excuse for his own desires. Do that, and he’d be even more of a cad than her ass of a husband.
“Go home—Penelope.” He very deliberately employed her given name. “Go home and sleep it off.”
Lady Frederick’s mouth opened in soundless laughter. “You think I’m foxed? Trust me, Captain, I can hold my liquor better than that.”
“Drunk on revenge,” he corrected bluntly. “You’ll feel differently in the morning.”
“Will I?” she said, and her gaze swept him up and down, taking in every last detail, as someone anticipating thirst might drain the last drops of water from a dipper.
There was an odd, forlorn note in her voice that made Alex wonder, with a dangerous burst of exhilaration, if he might have gotten it all topsy-turvy, if it might not be at least a little bit about him and a little bit less about revenge. He made a move towards her, not towards Lady Frederick, but towards Penelope, forthright and honest and calling to him.
But he left it too late.
She turned, abruptly, missing the hand that had begun to reach for her.
“If you don’t appreciate my company,” she said flippantly, looking pointedly back towards the Residency, “I’ll find someone who will.”
Her back was towards him, the slim column of her throat held as high as it would go. She was every inch Lady Frederick again, as hard and glittering as the marble columns supporting the Residency veranda.
Alex tasted regret, as pungent as sour wine. Regret and pity.
Even though he knew she wouldn’t thank him for it, he called after her, “Lady Frederick—Penelope.”
She stopped at the sound of his voice, wary, waiting.
He couldn’t bring himself to say what he really wanted to. “Don’t sell yourself too cheaply.”
He saw the flicker of her lashes as she glanced back at the shadow figures on the veranda. “That’s the bother of it, Captain Reid. I already have.”