The Elusive Bride

The Elusive Bride

Second volume in The Black Cobra Quartet
First published 2010
Avon Books
ISBN 978-0-06-179515-2

A second battle-hardened, completely unstoppable, all male hero, an ex-officer of the Crown, confronts the deadly enemy known only as the Black Cobra.

He's focused in his mission, then sees a lady he never dreamed he'd see again - with an assassin on her heels.

She's secretly followed him, unaware her path is deadly - or that she'll join him to battle a treacherous foe.

Through ever-present peril, through passion, desire and ecstasy, they race to reach England - and their destiny.

A New York Times, USA-Today & Publishers Weekly Bestseller!

Nominated for Best Historical Romantic Adventure of 2010 by Romantic Times.

"Laurens has outdone herself in this second book of the Black Cobra Quartet, combining a wondrous plot filled with suspense and emotions, a dynamic hero, a fearless forward-thinking heroine and a story that crackles." Romantic Times - TOP PICK!

"A masterpiece! I promise that you will be happily reacquainted with some of the Cynsters and Bastion Club members that you love so much! My advice to all of you...either pre-order now, or or be at the bookstore first thing on Jan 26, 2010!"

"A remarkably witty and extremely alluring historical romance with danger lurking on every page."

"The sweeping storyline is intriguing. Ms Laurens has several tricks up her sleeve and she never disappoints."

Laurens is adept at weaving together thrilling adventure and intense passion." Historical Novels Review.

"Another incredible series connected to the Cynsters and Bastion Club." Romantic Times

September 2, 1822

Road from Poona to Bombay.


The battle cries of their pursuers faded momentarily as Emily Ensworth and her escort thundered around the next bend. Gaze locked on the beaten surface of the dirt road, she concentrated on urging her mare even faster-on fleeing down the mountain road as if her life depended on it.

She suspected it did.

They were halfway down the hill road from Poona, the monsoon capital for the upper echelons of the British governing Bombay. Bombay itself was still hours of hard riding ahead. About them, the usually serene beauty of the hills, with their majestic firs and cool crisp air, was again fractured by the ululations of the riders pursuing them.

She'd got a good look at them earlier. Clad in traditional native garb, their insignia was a black silk scarf wound about their heads, long ends flying as, swords flashing, they'd charged wildly in their wake.
Their pursuers were Black Cobra cultists. She'd heard the grisly tales, and had no wish to feature in the next horrific instalment.
She and her escort, led by young Captain MacFarlane, had fled at a flat gallop, yet somehow the cultists had closed the distance. She'd initially felt confident she and the troop could outrun them; she was no longer so sure.

Captain MacFarlane rode alongside her. Her eyes locked on the sharply descending road, she sensed him glance back, then, a moment later, he glanced at her. She was about to snap that she was an accomplished rider, as he should by now have noticed, when he looked ahead and pointed.

"There!" MacFarlane waved at his lieutenant. "Those two rocks on the next stretch. With two others I can hold them back long enough for Miss Ensworth and the rest of you to reach safety."

"I'll stay with you!" the lieutenant shouted across Emily's head. "Binta and the others can carry on with the memsahib."

The memsahib - Emily - stared at the rocks in question. Two tall, massive boulders, they framed the road, with the sheer cliff face on one side, and an equally sheer drop on the other. She was no general, but while three men might delay their pursuers, they'd never hold them back.

"No!" She glanced at MacFarlane while they continued to thunder on.
"We all of us stay, or we all of us go on."

Blue eyes narrowed on her face. His jaw set. "Miss Ensworth, I've no time to argue. You will go on with the bulk of the troop."

Of course she argued, but he wouldn't listen.

So complete was his ignoring of her words that she suddenly realized he knew he wouldn't survive. That he'd die-here on this road-and it wouldn't be a pretty death.

He'd accepted that.

His bravery stunned her, rendered her silent as, reaching the rocks, they pulled up, milling as MacFarlane snapped out orders.

Then he reached over, grabbed her bridle, and drew her on down the road.

"Here." Drawing a folded parchment packet from inside his coat, he thrust it into her hand. "Take this - get it to Colonel Derek Delborough. He's at the fort in Bombay." Blue eyes met hers. "It's vital you place that in his hands-his and no others. Do you understand?"

Numb, she nodded. "Colonel Delborough, at the fort."

"Right. Now ride!" He slapped her mare's rump.

The horse leapt forward. Emily shoved the packet into the front of her riding jacket, and tightened her grip on the reins. Behind her, the troop came pounding up, forming around her as they again fled on.

She glanced back as they rounded the next curve. Two of the troop were taking up positions on either side of the rocks. MacFarlane was freeing their horses, shooing them on.

Then they swept around the curve and he was lost to her sight.

She had to ride on. He'd given her no choice. If she didn't reach Bombay and deliver his packet, his death - his sacrifice - would be for nought.

That couldn't be. She couldn't let that happen.

But he'd been so young.

Tears stung her eyes. Viciously she blinked them back.

She had to concentrate on the godforsaken road and ride.

* * *

Later that day

East India Company Fort, Bombay.

Emily fixed the sepoy guarding the fort gates with a steady direct gaze. "Captain MacFarlane?"

As the niece of the Governor of Bombay, visiting her uncle for the last six months, she could ask and expect to be answered.

The sepoy blanched, olive skin and all. The glance he bent on her was sorrowful and compassionate. "I am very sorry, miss, but the captain is dead."

She'd expected it, yet...looking down, she swallowed, then lifted her head, drew breath. Fixed the guard with an even more imperious gaze. "I wish to speak with Colonel Delborough. Where may I find him?"

* * *

The answer had been the officers' bar, the enclosed front verandah of the officers' mess. Emily wasn't sure it was acceptable for her - a female - to go inside, but that wasn't going to stop her.

Idi, the Indian maid she'd borrowed from her uncle's household, trailing behind her, she mounted the shallow steps. Moving into the dim shadows of the verandah, she halted to let her eyes adjust.

Once they had, she swept the verandah left to right, registering the familiar click of billiard balls coming from an alcove off one end, several officers in groups of twos and threes gathered about round tables, and one larger group haunting the far right corner.

Of course they'd all noticed her the instant she'd walked in.

A serving boy quickly came forward. "Miss?"

Transferring her gaze from the group to the boy's face, she stated, "I'm looking for Colonel Delborough. I was informed he was here."

The boy bobbed. "Yes, miss." He swung and pointed to the group in the corner. "He is there with his men."

Had MacFarlane been one of Delborough's men? Emily thanked the boy and headed for the corner table.

There were four very large officers seated at the table. All four slowly rose as she approached. Remembering Idi dutifully dogging her heels, Emily paused and waved the maid to a chair by the verandah's side. "Wait there."

Holding the edge of her sari half over her face, Idi nodded and sat.

Drawing breath, head rising, Emily walked on.

As she neared, she scanned, not the men's faces - even without looking she knew their expressions were bleak; they'd learned of MacFarlane's death, almost certainly knew the manner of it, something she was sure she didn't need to know - but instead she searched each pair of broad shoulders for a colonel's epaulettes.

Distantly she registered that, in common female parlance, these men would be termed "impressive," with their broad chests, their height and their air of rugged physical strength. She was surprised she hadn't seen them in any of the drawing rooms she'd visited with her aunt over recent months.

Another captain-blonder than MacFarlane-and two majors, one with light brown hair….she had to tug her gaze on to the other major, the one with rakish dark hair, then she finally found the colonel among them-presumably Delborough. He had dark hair, too.

She halted before him, lifted her gaze to his face, set her teeth against the emotions surging about the table; she couldn't let them draw her in. Down. Make her cry. She'd cried enough when she'd reached her uncle's house, and she hadn't known MacFarlane as, from the intensity of their feelings, these four had. "Colonel Delborough?"

The colonel inclined his head, dark eyes searching her face. "Ma'am?"

"I'm Emily Ensworth, the governor's niece. I..." Recalling MacFarlane's instructions - Delborough's hands and no others - she glanced at the other three. "If I could trouble you for a word in private, Colonel?"

Delborough hesitated, then said, "Every man about this table is an old friend and colleague of James MacFarlane. We were all working together. If your business with me has anything to do with James, I would ask that you speak before us all."

His eyes were weary, and so sad. One glance at the others, at their rigid expressions - so contained - and she nodded. "Very well."

There was an empty chair between the two majors. The brown-haired one held it for her.

She briefly met his eyes, a tawnier hazel than her own. "Thank you." Ignoring the sudden flutter in her stomach, she sat. Determinedly directing her gaze forward, she found herself staring at a three-quarters empty bottle of arrack at the table's center.

With a shuffle of chairs, the men resumed their seats.

She glanced at Delborough. "I realize it might be irregular, but if I could have a small glass of that...?"

He met her eyes. "It's arrack."

"I know."

He signaled to the barboy to bring another glass. While they waited, beneath the table's edge she opened her reticule and drew out MacFarlane's packet.

The boy delivered the glass, and Delborough poured a half measure.

With a smile that went awry, she accepted it and took a small sip. The sharp taste made her nose wrinkle, but her uncle had allowed her to partake of the liquor in an experimental fashion; she knew of its fortifying properties. She took a larger sip, then lowered the glass. Quashing the impulse to look at the brown-haired major, she fixed her gaze on Delborough. "I asked at the gate and they told me. I'm very sorry that Captain MacFarlane didn't make it back."

Delborough's expression couldn't get any stonier, but he inclined his head. "If you could tell us what happened from the beginning, it would help us understand."

They'd been MacFarlane's friends; they needed to know. "Yes, of course." She cleared her throat. "We started very early from Poona."

She told the story simply, without embellishment.

When she reached the point where she'd parted from the gallant captain, she paused and drained her glass. "I tried to argue, but he would have none of it. He drew me aside - ahead - and gave me this." She lifted the packet. Laying it on the table, she pushed it toward Delborough. "Captain MacFarlane asked me to bring this to you."

She finished her tale in the minimum of words, ending with, "He turned back with a few men, and the rest came with me."

When she fell silent, the distracting major on her left shifted. Spoke gently. "And you sent them back when you came within sight of safety." When she glanced his way, met his hazel eyes, he added, "You did the best you could."

The instant she'd sighted Bombay, she'd insisted all but two of the troop return to help their comrades; unfortunately, they'd been too late.

Setting a hand on the packet, Delborough drew it to him. "And you did the right thing."

She blinked several times, then lifted her chin, her gaze on the packet. "I don't know what's in that - I didn't look. But whatever it is...I hope it's worth it, worth the sacrifice he made." She raised her gaze to Delborough's. "I'll leave it in your hands, Colonel, as I promised Captain MacFarlane I would." She pushed back from the table.

They all rose. The brown-haired major drew back her chair. "Allow me to organize an escort for you back to the governor's house."

She inclined her head graciously. "Thank you, Major." Who was he? Her nerves were fluttering again. He was standing closer than before; she didn't think her lightheadedness was due to the arrack.

Forcing her attention to Delborough and the other two, she nodded. "Good evening, Colonel. Gentlemen."

"Miss Ensworth." They all bowed.

Turning, she strolled back down the verandah, the major pacing slowly alongside. She waved to Idi, who fell into step behind her.

She glanced at the major's carefully blank expression, then cleared her throat. "You all knew him well, I take it?"

He glanced at her. "He'd served with us, alongside us, for over eight years. He was a comrade, and a close friend."

She'd noticed their uniforms, but now it struck her. She looked at the major. "You're not regulars."

"No." His lips twisted. "We're Hastings's own."

The Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of India. This group, and MacFarlane, had worked directly for him? "I see." She didn't, but she felt sure her uncle would be able to enlighten her.

They emerged onto the verandah steps.

"If you'll wait here for a moment?"

It wasn't really a question. She halted and, with Idi beside her, watched as the major raised a hand, attracting the attention of a sepoy sergeant drilling his troop on the maidan.

The sergeant quickly presented himself. With a few words, the major organized a group of sepoys to escort her back to the governor's residence deeper in the town.

His innate yet understated air of command, and the attentiveness and willingness, even eagerness of the sergeant to obey, were as impressive as his physical presence.

As the sepoys hurried to form up before the steps, Emily turned to the soldier beside her and held out her hand. "Thank you, Major...?"

He took her hand in a warm, strong clasp, met her eyes briefly, then half-bowed. "Major Gareth Hamilton, Miss Ensworth." Releasing her, he looked at the well-ordered sepoys, nodded his approval, then turned again to her.

Again met her eyes. "Please. Be careful."

She blinked. "Yes, of course." Her heart was thumping unusually quickly. She could still feel the pressure of his fingers around hers. Drawing in a much needed breath, she inclined her head and stepped down to the dusty ground. "Good evening, major."

"Good evening, Miss Ensworth."

Gareth stood on the steps and watched Emily Ensworth walk away across the sunburned ground toward the massive fort gates. With her porcelain complexion, rose-tinted and pure, her delicate features and soft brown hair, she looked so quintessentially English, so much the epitomization of lovely English maids he'd carried with him through all his years of service.

That had to be the reason he felt as if he'd just met his future.

But it couldn't be her, couldn't be now.

Now, duty called.

Duty, and the memory of James MacFarlane.

Turning, he climbed the steps and went back inside.

* * *

3rd September, 1822
My room in the Governor's Residence

Dear Dairy,

I have waited for so long, and will admit that I had fallen into the habit of imagining it would never happen, that now it might have, I find myself rather cautious. Is this what my sisters meant when they said I would simply know? Certainly, my stomach and my nerves proved to be singularly sensitive to Major Hamilton's nearness-as Ester, Meggie and Hilary foretold-but how reliable is that indicator?

On the other hand, this does sound like fate playing her usual tricks. Here am I, virtually at the end of my stay in India - a sojourn expressly undertaken to broaden my horizons vis a vis marriageable gentlemen, exposing me to more specimens of varying character so that my well-known "pickiness" might become better informed - and I finally stumble on one who affects me, and after an entire day, I have barely learned his name and station.

It is no help that Aunt Selma remains in Poona, too far away to provide advice, and so all my information needs must come from my uncle, although Uncle Ralph does answer without thinking of the motives behind my questions, which is all to the good.

Until I know more about Major Hamilton, I cannot know if, as I am starting to fervently hope, he is "the one" - my "one," the gentleman for me - so my most urgent need is to learn more about him, but from whom?

And I need to spend more time with him, too - but how?

I must devote myself to finding ways - I have only a few days left.

And after all these years of waiting for him to appear, and coming all this way before meeting him, sailing away and leaving my "one" behind just doesn't bear thinking about.


* * *

September 10, 1822
The Governor's Residence, Bombay.

Emily frowned at the Indian houseboy standing in the patch of sunlight slanting across the silk rug in her aunt's parlor. "He's leaving?"

The boy, Chandra, nodded. "Yes, miss. It is said he and his other friends have all resigned their commissions because they are so cast down by the death of their friend the captain."

She resisted the urge to drop her head in her hands and tug at her braids. What the devil was Hamilton about? How could he be her "one" if he was so cowardly as to run home to England? What about honor and avenging a friend-a comrade and fellow officer killed in the most ghastly and gruesome manner?

A vision of the four men as they'd stood around the table in the officers' bar swam across her mind. Her frown deepened. "All of them-all four-have resigned?"

When Chandra nodded, she specified, "And they're all heading back to England?"

"That's what everyone says. I have spoken with some who know their servants-they are all excited about seeing England."

Emily sat back in the chair behind her aunt's desk, thought again of those four men, of all she'd sensed of them, remembered the packet she'd placed in Delborough's hands, and inwardly shook her head. Any one of those four turning tail was hard enough to swallow, but all four of them? She wouldn't lose faith in Hamilton just yet.

They were up to something.

She wondered what.

She was due to board ship on the eighteenth of the month, sailing via the Cape to Southampton. She needed to learn more about Hamilton, a lot more, before she left. Once she was convinced he was not as cowardly as his present actions painted him, as he was going home she could-somehow would-arrange to meet him again there.

But first...

She refocused on Chandra. "I want you to concentrate on Major Hamilton. See what you can learn of his plans - not just from his household but from the barracks and anywhere else he goes. But whatever you do, don't get caught."

Chandra grinned, his big smile startlingly white in his mahogany face. "You can count on Chandra, miss."

She smiled. "Yes, I know I can." She'd caught him gaming, which was forbidden for those on the governor's payroll, but on learning his need for rupees to pay for medicine for his mother, had arranged for him to have money advanced from his pay, and for his mother, who also worked in the governor's mansion, to receive better care. Ever since, Chandra had been her willing slave. And as he was quick, observant, and all but invisible in Bombay's busy streets, he'd proved extremely useful in following Hamilton and the other three.

"One thing - Hamilton has no other Anglo friends, just those three officers?"

"Yes, miss. They all came from Calcutta some months ago, and have kept to themselves."

Which would explain why she'd learned nothing of Hamilton through the Bombay social grapevine. She nodded to Chandra. "Very well. Let me know what you learn."

* * *

September 15, 1822
The Governor's Residence, Bombay.

"He's left?" Emily stared at Chandra. "When? And how?"

"This morning, miss. He took the sloop to Aden."

"Him and his servants?"

"So I heard tell, miss - they were already gone when I got there."

Mind racing, she asked, "The other three - have they gone, too?"

"I have only had the chance to check on the colonel, miss. Apparently he left on the company ship this morning. Everyone was surprised. No one knew they were leaving so soon."

The company ship was a mammoth East Indiaman which went via the Cape and Southhampton. She was due to board a sister ship in a few days.

"See what you can learn about the other two-the other major and the captain." If all four had precipitously departed Bombay...

Chandra bowed and left.

Emily felt a headache coming on.

Gareth Hamilton - he who might be her "one" - had left Bombay via the diplomatic route. Why?

Regardless of his motives, his sudden departure left her with a very big unanswered question - and an even bigger decision to make. Was he her "one," or not? She needed more time with him to tell. If she wanted to get that time, following him might - just - be possible. If she acted now.

Should she follow him, or let him go?

Closing her eyes, she revisited those moments in the officers' bar, the only moments on which she could judge him. Surprisingly vividly, she recalled the sensation of his fingers closing around hers, felt again that odd leap of her pulse, the frisson that had set her nerves jangling.

Felt, remembered, relived.

On a sigh, she opened her eyes. One point was inescapable.

Of all the men she'd ever met, only Gareth Hamilton had affected her in the slightest.

Only he had set her heart racing.

* * *

September 16th, 1822
The Governor's Residence, Bombay.

"Good evening, uncle." Emily swept into the dining room and took her seat on her uncle's right. They were the only two at dinner. Her aunt was still in Poona - which was a very good thing. Flicking out her napkin, she smiled at the butler, waited for him to serve her and step back before she said, "I have an announcement of sorts to make."

"Oh?" Her uncle Ralph rolled a wary eye her way.

She smiled. She and Ralph had always got on well. "Don't worry - it's only a minor change in my plans. As you know, I was scheduled to depart on the company ship two days hence, but after speaking with others I've decided that, as I came by that route, I should instead go home by the direct and more scenic way." She waved her fork. "See Egypt and the pyramids - and as it is the diplomatic route, there's unlikely to be any serious danger, and plenty of embassies and consulates to call on for help if luck says otherwise."

Ralph chewed, frowned. "Your father won't like the idea, but then he won't know - not until you're standing in front of him again."

Emily grinned. "I knew I could trust you to see the salient point. There's really no reason I shouldn't go home that way."

"Assuming you can find passage at short notice. Your parents are expecting you back in four months - going via Cairo you'll be able to surprise them, if you can find a berth-" Seeing the light in her face, Ralph broke off. "You've found one, I take it."

Emily nodded. "And yes, it's on one of the sloops the company regularly uses, so the captain and crew are vouched for."

Ralph considered, then nodded. "Well, you're the most sensible young lady I've ever known, and you'll have Watson and Mullins with you, so I trust you'll be all right." He cocked a brow at her. "So, when do you leave?"



17th September, 1822
My cabin aboard the sloop Mary Alice

Dear Diary,

As usual, I will endeavor to record my thoughts at 5 o'clock every afternoon, before I dress for dinner. This morning I departed Bombay, and I understand we are making good time as the Mary Alice slices its way through the waves to Aden.

And yes, I acknowledge that it's undeniably bold to be pursuing a gentleman as I'm pursuing Major Hamilton, but as we all know, fortune favors the bold. Indeed, even my parents should accept the necessity - they sent me to Bombay because I dragged my heels over choosing any of the young men who offered, opting instead to wait for my "one," as all my sisters - and I suspect my sisters-in-law, too - did. I have always maintained that it was simply a matter of waiting for the right man to appear, and if Major Hamilton proves to be my right man, then at the ripe old age of twenty and four, I doubt anyone would argue against me pursuing him.

Of course, I have yet to determine if he truly is my "one," but I can only decide that after meeting him again.
Speaking of which...he and his party are two days ahead of me.

I wonder how fast a sloop can go?


* * *

1st October, 1822
My cabin aboard the Mary Alice

Dear Diary,

The answer to my last question is: quite amazingly fast when all sail is risked. My being extra-charming to the captain and challenging him to demonstrate how fast his ship can go has paid a handsome dividend. We passed the Egret, the sloop carrying the major and his household, sometime last night. With luck and continuing fair winds, I will disembark in Aden before him, and he will have no reason to suspect I set out on this journey to follow him.


* * *

October 2, 1822

"What the...?" Gareth Hamilton stood in the bow of the Egret and stared incredulously at the pale pink parasol bobbing through the crowd on the wharf alongside.

They'd followed another of the company sloops into the harbor, and had had to wait for that vessel, the Mary Alice, to be unloaded first.

His bags, along with the minimal luggage carried by his small but efficient household - his batman, Bister, his houseman, Mooktu, an ex-sepoy, and Mooktu's wife, Arnia - were being stacked that very minute on the wooden wharf, but that wasn't the cause of the consternation - to put it mildly - that had seized him.

He'd noticed the parasol bobbing down the gangway of the Mary Alice, tied up almost at the end of the long wharf. He'd watched the bearer, a lady in matching pale pink skirts, tack and weave through the crowd. She and the contingent of staff following at her heels, with one heavily muscled man clearing a path through the noisy, jostling throng ahead of her, had to pass along the wharf beside the Egret in order to enter the town.

Until a moment ago, he hadn't been able to see the parasol holder's face. But passing the Egret, she'd tipped the parasol aside and glanced up-and he'd glimpsed...a face he hadn't expected to see again.

A face that, for the last few weeks, had haunted his dreams.

Yet all but immediately, the damn parasol had come up and re-obscured his view.

"Damn!" One part of his mind was telling him, calmly, that it couldn't possibly be she, that he was seeing things he wanted to see…some other part, a more visceral part, was already sure.

He hesitated, waiting to see again - to know for sure.

Movement in the crowd behind the parasol caught his eye.


His blood literally ran cold. He'd known they'd be waiting for him - he and his people were expecting a welcome.

But Emily Ensworth and her people weren't.

He'd vaulted the railing on the thought. He landed on the wharf, his gaze locked on her.

He came up from his crouch with considerable momentum, cleaving his way bodily through the crowd. He came up with her just in time to grab her and haul her away from the blade a cultist thrust at her.

Her gasp was drowned beneath a cacophony of sound - exclamations, shrieks, shouts. Others had seen the menacing sword, but even as the crowd turned and garrulously searched, the cultists melted away. Taller than most, Gareth saw them pull back. Over the heads, one cultist - an older, black-bearded man - met his eye. Even across the distance, Gareth felt the malevolence in the man's gaze. Then the man turned and was swallowed by the crowd.

Mooktu appeared by Gareth's shoulder. "Should we follow?"

Bister was already further afield, scouting.

Gareth's instincts screamed follow, to pursue and deal appropriately with any cultist he could find. But...he glanced down at the woman he still held, his hands locked about her upper arms.

Her parasol now askew, he looked down into wide, moss-hazel eyes. Into a face that was as perfect as he recalled, but pale. She was stunned.

At least she wasn't screaming.

"No." He glanced at Mooktu. "We have to get away from here - off the docks - quickly."

Mooktu nodded. "I'll get the others."

He was gone on the word, leaving Gareth to set Miss Ensworth back on her feet.

Gently, as if she were porcelain and might shatter at any instant.

"Are you all right?"

As the warmth - the heat - of his hard hands fell from her, Emily managed to blink. "Y-yes." This must be what shock felt like.

Indeed, she was amazed she hadn't swooned. He'd seized her, dragged her from danger, then held her close, effectively plastered to the side of his body. His brick-wall hard, excessively warm - not to say hot - body.

She didn't think she'd ever be the same.

"Ah..." Where was a fan when one needed one? She glanced around, and noise suddenly assaulted her ears. Everyone was talking, in several different languages.

Hamilton hadn't moved. He stood like a rock amid the sea of surging humanity. She wasn't too proud to shelter in his lee.

She finally located Mullins - her grizzly ex-soldier guard - as he came stumping back through the crowd. Just before the attack, a wave of bodies had pushed him ahead and separated them - then her attacker had stepped between her and Watson, her courier-guide, who'd been following on her heels.

Her people were armed, but having lost her assailant in the melee, they gradually returned. Mullins recognized Hamilton as a solider even though he wasn't in uniform, and raised a hand in an abbreviated salute. "Thanking you, sir - don't know what we'd've done without you."

Emily noted the way Hamilton's lips tightened. She was grateful he didn't state the obvious - if not for his intervention, she'd be dead.

The rest of her party gathered. Without prompting, she quickly put names and roles to their worried faces - Mullins, Watson, Jimmy, Watson's young nephew, and Dorcas, her very English maid.

Hamilton acknowledged the information with a nod, then looked from her to Watson. "Where were you planning to stay?"

* * *

Hamilton and his people - a batman, in his mid-twenties but with experience etched in his face, and a fierce Pashtun warrior and his equally fierce wife - escorted her party off the docks, then, with their combined luggage in a wooden cart, continued through the streets of Aden to the edge of the diplomatic quarter, and the quietly fashionable hotel her uncle had recommended.

Hamilton halted in the street outside, studied the building, then simply said, "No." He glanced at her, then past her to Mullins. "You can't stay there. There're too many entrances."

Stunned anew - and she still hadn't managed to marshal her senses enough to think through the implications of the cultists' attack - she looked at Mullins to discover him nodding his grizzled head.

"You're right," Mullins allowed. "Death trap, that is." He glanced at her and added, "In the circumstances."

Before she could argue, Hamilton smoothly continued, "For the moment, at least, I'm afraid our parties will need to stay together."

She looked at him.

He caught her eye. "We need to find somewhere a lot less...obvious."

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