Heart Of The Tiger
Lynn Kerstan

Excerpt

1823, a walled house north of London

An hour later, when Michael was well into his second glass of brandy, Nageena Kaur brought saucers of olives, chupatti, dal paste, and dried apricots into the room where he was to contend with Miss Holcombe. "The young woman will be here soon," she said, placing the dishes on a sideboard. "Is there more I can do for you?"

"See to it we are not disturbed, if you will. No matter what you hear." He smiled at Birindar's wife, who was practically vibrating with curiosity. "I will not dishonor her. You know that. But I'll probably make her angry."

"She is angry now, Syr. But she has not shown it to the family, and she has been kind to the children. We are pleased to have her in our home."

It was Miranda Holcombe who needed kindness, he was thinking as Nageena Kaur left the room. But she wouldn't be getting any from him. His intentions were precisely the opposite, and telling himself he would be cauterizing a wound made it no easier. Hell, he wasn't at all sure what to do, except that the other possibilities seemed even worse than the course he had chosen.

First he meant to rouse her temper, the one she pretended not to have, and prod her into a fight. He was rather looking forward to that. Then, with her too angry at him to notice, he would draw in the net, a little at a time, until she was irrevocably trapped.

He took his bottle and glass to a low cushioned bench, where he settled himself cross-legged with the fire at his back. The loose muslin trousers Birindar had provided were too short for his legs, the tunic fit snug across his shoulders, and his feet were bare, but the wine-colored banyon embroidered with gold thread made him look marginally civilized . . . so long as you ignored a day's growth of beard. He hadn't thought his hand steady enough to shave.

Holding out his glass, he watched the brandy undulate. Focused his mind. Willed himself to grow calm.

After a while, the surface of the liquid became smooth and still, like a mountain lake. The lake at Naini Tal, at the end of the tiger's path, where the goddess had come to live.

He reached to the deepest part of him, to where things he must not reveal huddled in silence, and drew them out. One by one he consigned them to the lake, giving each what time it needed to sink into the black water, for some flaws were more difficult than others to release. Small rituals.

Preparations for battle. Hari had taught him how to let go of all but his purpose, to count neither the cost nor the punishment, to be at peace with what he must do.

Empty at last of what he feared and what would make him weak, he raised the glass and tipped the brandy down his throat. Drowning the monsters, he'd used to call it, until he acknowledged the monsters that could never be extinguished. After that, he gave up the name, but could never hit upon a good reason to give up the drinking.

Miranda would disapprove, he supposed. Was there anything about him that she would approve? And why ask, when he bloody well knew the answer?

She arrived just as he was refilling his glass, entering so silently that he, who had been watching for her with every nerve end on edge, missed the opening and closing of the door. When he glanced up, expecting to see nothing, there she was. The goddess of the lake.

In an instant, he drank in the whole of her. Gloved hands held motionless at her sides, she stood demure as a nun in her unadorned sage- green gown.

Demure except for that wanton tumble of silver-gilt hair over her shoulders, and the fierce passion held barely in check, and the blue eyes fixed on him like a pair of bayonets. If a glacier could go on fire, it would look exactly as she looked at this moment.

His hands started shaking again.

"You summoned me, Your Grace?"

It always amazed him how much expression she could put into that whispery voice. With no perceptible increase in sound, she could shout at you, or rebuke you, or curl your toes with her sarcasm. He'd once confronted, alone and unarmed, a band of Thugees with less trepidation than he felt at this moment.

"You'd have come after me anyway," he said. "Drink?"

"I expect you'll drink enough for the both of us. You recanted your confession, I gather."

"It stands, except I have to refine it a little, to account for my absence from London at the time of the murder. A simple matter, and I'll get around to it shortly. In the meantime, there's your confession to deal with."

"But you've done that already, by preventing me from delivering it. For the time being. You can't hold me here indefinitely."

"Why not?" He rested his hands on his knees, trying to look relaxed and in control of the situation. "Besides, it won't be all that long. Once the murderer is executed, no one will care what you have to say. The authorities sure as hell won't admit they hanged the wrong culprit, and they won't rush out and hang you as well, just because you insist on it. They'll rule you mad, Miss Holcombe, and put you away where madwomen are put."

She paled. "The truth should be told, sir."

"Maybe. But it won't come from either of us, will it? The only question is, which lie will win the day? And since I've answered that by having you brought here, what have we left to talk about?"

"Nothing whatever." She came a little forward, the fingers curled against her skirts betraying more than she realized. "If you won't listen to reason."

"I'm all ears, Miranda. Have at me." The use of her first name was deliberate, and the flash in her eyes told him she recognized the opening move of an aggressive campaign.

"I mean to," she said with undisguised scorn. "By what authority do you interfere with where I go or what I do? You have no right, none, to meddle in my affairs."

"I don't deny it." How could he? That very morning, he'd said much the same to a meddling Archangel. "But what is that to the point? I've done what was necessary, and I'll get away with it because you cannot prevent me."

The next he knew, a missile was sailing in the direction of his head. He jerked aside just in time. The object whizzed past his ear, shattering against the fireplace. Shortly after, he heard a sizzling noise and smelled burning olives.

Miranda, eyes round as the saucer she'd thrown at him, looked shocked.

He clicked his tongue. "Is that the best you can do?"

"Is it your habit to ride roughshod over helpless females? Abduct them. Imprison them?" She had clasped her hands behind her back, as if to keep them from misbehaving.

He wanted her to misbehave, to do worse than that. The habit of discipline was too strong in her. "Helpless? I very much doubt it. And you are the one resolved to dive into a prison cell. I merely changed the venue from Newgate to this house. Resign yourself, Miss Holcombe. From here on out, you will do as I say."

This time he was ready. He saw her quiver, as if she'd break apart and fly off in all directions. And then she directed her fury to a single action. In a flash, another saucer was skimming toward his head.

It struck his cheekbone hard, ricocheted off, and bounced across the carpet. Its contents, a stack of flat chupatti bread, landed on his lap.

The blow hurt, undeniably, and must have cut open his cheek. He felt a warm trickle of blood making its way down his face.

Miranda, another saucer in her hand, gazed at him with astonishment. "You didn't duck," she said. It was an accusation.

He shrugged. "Nothing you can say or do will stop me, but you have every right to be angry. Go ahead. Throw all of them. I promise to hold still."

"That . . . rather removes the incentive." She looked down at the saucer she was holding. After a moment, she laid it gently on the side table and picked up a napkin. "Your face is bleeding, sir. Shall I tend to it?"

The prospect of being so close to her, of being touched by her . . . But it was an indulgence he couldn't afford. They had too far to go on this journey, and for much of the way, she must continue to despise him. "That's not necessary," he said. "But I'll take the napkin."

Flushing slightly, she brought it over to him and then backed away, but not so far as she had been standing before.

Progress of a sort, he supposed, pouring a little brandy over the napkin before pressing it to his cheekbone. The cut burned like the devil. Reckoning that it would please her, he produced an exaggerated wince.

"Explain to me," she said, "because truly, I do not understand. Why will you not permit me to make my own decisions? What is it to you if I accept responsibility for my crime? I am perfectly willing to do so. And why do you refuse to accept that I killed the duke?"

"In order, then," he said amiably. "You are making bad decisions, and I suspect you rarely do. I've made it my business to obstruct your plans because mine are better. And as for you killing-"

"Don't tell me it's because you did it." The anger was back in her eyes. "I know how you look at me, how everyone has always looked at me. You see a . . . a plaster statue in a church. A fresco on a convent wall. And because I appear gentle and virtuous, you think me incapable of hatred. Of devious schemes and murderous intentions. Of vengeance."

He regarded her for a time, considering. "As a matter of fact, I think you more than capable of plotting a murder and carrying it out. But not, my dear, for the sake of stolen property."