The Reckless Bride

The Reckless Bride

Fourth volume in The Black Cobra Quartet
First published 2010
Avon Books
ISBN 978-0-06-179519-0

Four bold, brave, and determined ex-officers of the Crown band together to destroy the traitorous fiend known as the Black Cobra.

He races to complete their mission against escalating odds--his task made more perilous when he loses his heart.

She's determined to defy convention and live a solitary life--until she tastes the reckless pleasure found only in his arms.

Drawn together by fate, united by fiery passion, they pursue their shared they'll live to see only if they unmask the Black Cobra.

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

"Excitement, sexual allure and suspense follow throughout the entire story. If you like a story that keeps you glued to the pages from 1 to 400, with each page as exciting as the last, this is the read for you! Fresh Fiction.

"The finale of the Black Cobra series features an expertly written, fast-paced, dramatic story filled with intrigue, adventure and a superb romance. Laurens' deft interweaving of a highly sensual love story entwined with a thrilling adventure/mystery is outstanding. She never lets one overshadow the other, truly the mark of a masterful storyteller." Romantic Times, Top Pick - 4 ½ Stars

"An action-packed and exciting conclusion to the series which has its share of unexpected twists. Written with Laurens' trademark lush romanticism and sensuality, the various couples that people her version of England continue to epitomize the power of love and strength imparted to a relationship of equal partners." Night Owl Reviews, 4.75 / 5 - Reviewer Top Pick

"A steamy and passionate love story but, additionally, it is action-packed and riveting. When I'm looking for a passioante and intriguing historical read, Ms Laurens never disappoints." Romance Junkies.

November 24, 1822
Danube Embankment, Buda

Rafe walked out of the office of the Excelsior Shipping Company, tickets for two passenger cabins on the Uray Princep, a riverboat due to start up the Danube two days hence, in his pocket.

He glanced up and down the street, then strolled to where Hassan waited outside a nearby shop.

Rafe tapped the pocket of the well-tailored, distinctly European-style winter coat he now wore. "The last two tickets. No chance of an assassin getting on as a passenger, and the boat's too small for them to stow away or join the crew at the last minute."

Hassan nodded. Rafe was still getting used to the sight of his friend without his headdress. 

They'd reached Buda two nights before. The first thing they'd done yesterday had been to visit a tailor and exchange their Turkish shirts, loose trousers, and coats for European garb. Throughout their journey they'd constantly changed clothes to better blend with the natives. Now, in the well-cut topcoat over a stylish coat, waistcoat, and trousers, a cravat once more neatly knotted about his neck, with his blond hair trimmed, washed, and brushed, Rafe was indistinguishable from the many German, Austrian, and Prussian merchants traveling through Buda, while Hassan's hawklike features, with his black hair and beard neatly trimmed, combined with a plain coat, breeches, and boots, fitted the part of a guard from Georgia or one of the more dangerous principalities. They were one with the crowd jostling on the docks and strolling the embankment. No heads had turned as they'd passed; no one paid them any heed.

The chance of merging into the stream of travelers, of taking effective cover among the multitude, had been the principal attraction that had made Rafe decide on the northerly route. With his distinctive height and blond hair, he, especially, would have had difficulty passing unnoticed through Italy and France.

The second place they'd visited yesterday had been a gunsmith's. Rafe had laid in a stock of pistols, powder, and shot. The cultists' one true weakness was a superstitious fear of firearms; Rafe intended to be prepared to exploit it. He and Hassan now carried loaded pistols.
They still wore their swords and carried the knives they'd feel naked without. Although the wars in Europe were over, pockets of military unrest still lingered and brigands remained an occasional threat, so swords on intrepid travelers raised no eyebrows; no one could see their knives.

Rafe had also found a cartographer's studio; he'd bought the best maps available of the areas through which they planned to pass. He and Hassan had spent yesterday afternoon studying their prospective route, then had sought advice from their innkeeper and the patrons of the inn's bar on which shipping company to approach.

Hassan looked at the quays lining the opposite side of the street. "Going by river is a good strategy. The cult will likely not think of it."

Rafe nodded. "At least not immediately." In India, rivers were not much used for long distance travel, not like the Danube and Rhine. And as the majority of cultists couldn't swim, staying on a riverboat was a better option than hotels and inns on land. "According to the shipping clerk, our journey via the rivers should land us in Rotterdam with a day to spare - no need to schedule any other halts to align us with Wolverstone's timetable."

"We have seen no cultists here yet," Hassan said. "None around the docks. If any are in the city, they must be watching the coaching inns and the roads leading east."

Following Hassan's gaze to the wide river buzzing with craft large and small, then lifting his gaze to the stone bridge linking Buda with the city of Pest, clustered on the opposite bank, Rafe murmured, "If they had cultists in Constanta, there'll be cultists here. We need to remain on guard."

He started strolling along the embankment. Hassan fell in beside him. They headed toward the small inn in which they'd taken rooms.

"The Black Cobra will have stationed cultists in every major town along the highways," Rafe said. "Here, Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Essen, among others. By taking the rivers, we'll avoid most of those. On our first leg along the Danube, Vienna is the one city we can't avoid, but for the rest it's as we thought - the river towns are smaller, and most lie away from the major highways." That had been the reason they'd decided to travel by riverboat up the Danube and then down the Rhine. "Nevertheless, we should put some effort into shoring up our digsuise. We need a believable story to account for who we appear to be - an occupation, a purpose, a reason for us traveling."

They'd reached an intersection where a narrow cobbled street rolled down from the fashionable older quarter to join the embankment.


The shrill female protest jerked them to a halt. They looked up the street.

In the shadows cast by tall buildings, an older woman - a lady by her dress - flailed at two louts who had backed her against a wall and were reaching for her arms, presumably to seize her reticule, bangles, and rings.

There was no one else in the street.

Rafe and Hassan were racing up the cobbles before the woman's next cry.

Her attackers, wrestling with her as, breathlessly protesting, she fought to beat them off, knew nothing until Rafe grabbed one man by his collar, shook him until he released his hold on the woman, then flung him across the street. The man landed with a crunch against a wall.

A second later, courtesy of Hassan, his accomplice joined him.

Rafe turned to the woman. "Are you all right?"

He'd spoken in German, deeming that language more likely to be understood by any local or traveler. He clasped the gloved hand the woman weakly held out to him, took in her ageing, yet delicately boned face. She was old enough to be his grandmother.

Beside him, Hassan kept an eye on the pair of louts.

The lady - Rafe might have been away from society for more than a decade, but he recognized the poker-straight spine, the head rising high, the haughty features - considered him, then said in perfect upperclass English, "Thank you, dear boy. I'm a trifle rattled, but if you'll help me to that bench there, I daresay I'll be right as rain in two minutes."

Rafe hesitated, wondering if he should admit to understanding her.

Her lips quirked. Drawing her hand from his, she patted his arm. "Your accent's straight from Eton, dear boy. And you look vaguely familiar, too - no doubt I'll place you in a few minutes. Now give me your arm."

Momentarily bemused, he did. As they neared the bench outside a small patisserie a few paces away, the chef appeared in the doorway, a rolling pin in one hand. He rushed to assist the lady, exclaiming at the dastardliness of the attack. Others emerged from neighboring shops, equally incensed.

"They're recovering," Hassan said.

Everyone turned to see the two attackers groggily stagger to their feet.

The locals yelled and waved their impromptu weapons.

The attackers exchanged a glance, then fled. 

"Do you want us to catch them?" one of the locals asked.

The lady waved. "No, no - they were doubtless some layabouts who thought to seize some coins from a defenceless old woman. No harm done, thanks to these two gentlemen, and I really do not have time to become entangled with the authorities here."

Rafe surreptitiously breathed a sigh of relief. Becoming entangled with the local authorities was the last thing he needed, too.

He listened while the patisserie owner pressed the lady to take a sample of his wares to wipe out the memory of the so-cowardly attack in their lovely city. The lady demurred, but when the chef and his neighbors pressed, she graciously accepted-in German that was significantly more fluent and colloquial than Rafe's.

When the locals eventually retreated, returning to their businesses, Rafe met the lady's gray eyes - eyes decidedly too shrewd for his liking. He gave an abbreviated bow. "Rafe Carstairs, ma'am." He would have preferred to decamp - to run away from any lady who called him "dear boy" - but ingrained manners forced him to ask, "Are you staying nearby?"

The lady smiled approvingly and gave him her hand. "Lady Congreve. I believe I knew your parents, and I know your brother, Viscount Henley. I'm putting up at the Imperial Hotel, just along from the top of this street."

Suppressing a grimace - of course she would know his family - Rafe bowed over her hand, with the other gestured to Hassan. "We'll escort you back once you're ready."

Lady Congreve's smile widened. "Thank you, dear boy. I'm feeling quite recovered already, but" - she gripped his hand and Rafe helped her to her feet - "before I return to the hotel, I must complete the errand that brought me this way. I have to collect tickets from an office on the embankment."

Rafe gave her his arm and they turned down the street. "Which company?"

"The Excelsior Shipping Company." Lady Congreve gestured with her cane. "I believe they're just around the corner."

* * *

Half an hour later, Rafe and Hassan found themselves taking tea in the premier suite of the Imperial Hotel in the fashionable castle quarter of Buda. Lady Congreve had insisted. Rafe had discovered that his grande-dame-avoiding skills were rusty. There hadn't seemed any way to refuse the invitation without giving offense, and as he'd learned to his horror that Lady Congreve and her party were among the passengers due to depart on the Uray Princep the following morning, trying to avoid closer acquaintance seemed pointless.

He had to admit the array of cakes that arrived on the tea tray were the best he'd tasted in a decade.

"So you and Mr. Hassan were with the army in India." Lady Congreve settled back on the chaise and regarded him. "Did you ever meet Enslow?"

"Hastings's aide?" Rafe nodded. "Poor chap's usually run ragged. Hastings has a finger in so many pies."

"So I've heard. So you were based in Calcutta?"

"For the most part. In the months before I resigned and departed, a group of us were operating out of Bombay." Rafe understood she was checking his bona fides, but he wasn't sure why.

"So you've been soldiering for all these years, and have been a captain for how long?"

"Since before Toulouse."

"And you fought at Waterloo?"

He nodded. "I was part of a compound troop-part experienced regulars, part ton volunteers. Heavy cavalry."

"Who of the ton fought alongside you?"

"Mostly Cynsters - the six cousins - plus a smattering of other houses. Two Nevilles, a Percy, and one Farquar."

"Ah, yes, I remember hearing about the exploits of that troop. And now you've resigned and are heading back to England?"

Rafe shrugged. "It was time."

"Excellent!" Lady Congreve beamed.

Every instinct Rafe possessed went on high alert.

"It seems, sir, almost as if fate has sent you to me." Lady Congreve glanced at Hassan, including him in the comment. "I wonder if I might impose upon you - you and Mr. Hassan - to act as my party's courier-guide and guard? We left Paris with an experienced guide, but sadly had to part with him in Trieste. Knowing we would be traveling on by riverboat once we reached here, I didn't see any point in securing a replacement, but today's events have demonstrated my error. It simply isn't safe for ladies to walk these foreign streets unprotected." Lady Congreve held Rafe's gaze. "And as you are going the same way and, indeed, have already secured passage on the same boat, I do hope you can see your way to joining my party."

By sheer force of will, Rafe managed to keep all reaction from his face. 

When he didn't immediately reply, Lady Congreve continued, "Our meeting does seem fortuitous, especially as you've taken the last tickets on the boat, so even if I could find any men as suitable, I wouldn't be able to secure passage for them."

Rafe inwardly cursed the clerk at the shipping office, who, of course, had recognized him and commented. Racking his brains for the right form of words with which to decline, aware of Hassan looking at him, waiting for him to get them out of this trap, Rafe opened his mouth?then shut it. 

He and Hassan needed some reason that would explain their traveling on the river, some purpose that would make people accept their presence and not look too closely.

"And of course," Lady Congreve went on, "I'm sure your brother will be pleased to know you've been able to extend me this small service. I will, of course, take care of all the expenses involved and reimburse you for the tickets you've already purchased."

Rafe recognized that she'd rolled out her heavy guns-his parents, no less. His gaze abstracted, distracted by a prospect he was still trying to define, he waved her last words aside. "No need for recompense. If we do as you ask?"

Refocusing on Lady Congreve, he wondered at the wisdom - and the morality - of involving her, however much at arms' length, in his mission. The cultists throughout Europe would be watching for him and Hassan. As a pair of men traveling together, they were easy to spot-both over six feet tall, one distinctly fair, the other distinctly dark, both with military bearing.

But the cultists most likely would not look closely at two men traveling as part of a larger party.

Rafe glanced briefly at Hassan. "It might be possible for us to act as your guide and guard. We'll be on the same boat regardless, and as you noted, you won't be able to add more passengers to the list?."

Lady Congreve was clever enough to keep her lips shut and watch him vacillate.

Rafe remembered James MacFarlane's body.

Remembered the scroll-holder presently strapped to his side.

Remembered that the closer they drew to England, the more cultists they would need to slip past.

And Lady Congreve was the sort of lady who, if she knew the details, would wholeheartedly support his mission.

He focused on her face. Should he tell her of his mission?

He opened his mouth, the revelation on his tongue, then remembered the other tickets she'd picked up. "Who else is traveling with you? You have four tickets."

"As well as myself, there's my maid, Gibson, who've you've met."

The maid had been waiting in the suite, and had taken her mistress's coat and cane, then gone to order the tea. Rafe judged it likely Gibson, a woman of mature years, had served Lady Congreve for decades; there was an unspoken degree of empathy and loyalty between maid and mistress that suggested Gibson would fully support any decision her mistress made. No threat to his mission there. "And the other two tickets?"

"Another lady and her maid." Lady Congreve tilted her head, regarding him curiously. "They would be included among the people you would guide and guard, if that makes any difference."

Rafe knew that ladies of her laydship's generation often traveled in pairs, providing company for each other on the journey, someone to share the sights with, to converse with of an evening. He imagined that any lady Lady Congreve chose to travel with would be much like her. Which meant there was really no reason he shouldn't explain his mission, and if subsequently Lady Congreve stood by her offer of making them her courier-guide and guard, accept.

He drew breath, met Lady Congreve's gray eyes. "I'm inclined to accept your offer, ma'am, but first I must tell you what has brought Hassan and me this way." He glanced at Hassan, who raised his brows a fraction, but didn't seem disapproving, then looked back at her ladyship. "If once you've heard our story you still wish us to take up the positions of your courier-guide and guard, then I believe we can accommodate you."

Lady Congreve's smile was triumphant. "Excellent! Now what's this secret - "

She broke off as the knob on the corridor door turned. An instant later, the door opened, and a vision in a vibrant dark blue pelisse, with a fur hat with a jaunty feather perched atop swirls of lustrous dark hair, swept in.

"Esme - " The vision broke off, stared at Rafe, then glanced at Hassan. But her gaze returned to Rafe as he came to his feet, and she simply stared.

He stared back. He was only vaguely aware of another female-presumably the other maid-slipping into the room and closing the door; his entire attention, all his senses, had fixed, unswervingly, on the lady in blue. 

The young lady in blue. 

She was tallish, slender, and intensely feminine; an aura of suppressed-or was it controlled?-vibrancy all but charged the air around her. Her eyes, large and just faintly tip-tilted, were of an arresting shade of periwinkle blue made only more striking by her royal blue pelisse. Her curves were sleek, yet definite. He'd heard women with such figures likened to Greek or Roman deities; he now understood why. She was Athena, Diana, Persephone, Artemis-she seemed to be those constructs given life, just with sable hair and blue, blue eyes.

He felt like he'd taken a clout to the head. Just as in battles when he was staring down Death, time stood still.

It took effort to restart his mind, to return to the real world.
To the here and now.

"Esme" she'd said, and meant Lady Congreve. She was the other lady, Lady Congreve's traveling companion. A young lady her ladyship had taken under her wing.

The goddess had halted at the back of the chaise on which her laydship sat. Lady Congreve raised a hand, gracefully waved. "Allow me to present Miss Loretta Michelmarsh, my great-niece. The Honorable Mr. Rafe Carstairs, and his companion, Mr. Hassan."

Rafe inclined his head. Stiffly. The goddess was a relative; that made matters worse.

Miss Michelmarsh, her gaze still locked on him, her expression oddly blank, bestowed the barest bob that would pass for civility.

"You're just in time, Loretta dear, to hear the latest news." Lady Congreve twisted around to smile at her great-niece. "Mr. Carstairs and Mr. Hassan saved me from two attackers in the street near the shipping office, and at my request they've agreed to fill the positions of our courier-guide and guard."

Rafe now understood the reason behind Lady Congreve's triumphant expression, realized the trap he'd fallen into was of quite a different nature than he'd foreseen. He'd forgotten the principal entertainment grandes dames such as Lady Congreve delighted in. Matchmaking. Preferably with those of their acquaintance.

Her ladyship knew his family. She knew her great-niece. But he'd be damned if he allowed her to matchmake him - even with a vision that brought to mind a pantheon of goddesses.

Aside from all else?dragging in a deeper breath, he forced his gaze from its distraction, and looked down at her ladyship, who was clearly waiting to gauge his response. "Lady Congreve, I regret it will not be possible for me and Hassan to act as courier-guide and guard for you during your upcoming journey."

Lady Congreve regarded him, a frown forming in her eyes. "I understood, dear boy, that you had already agreed to fill the positions subject to informing me of the reason behind your current journey and my confirmation of the appointments subsequent to that." She opened her eyes wide. "What on earth happened in the space of just a moment to change your mind?"

She knew. Rafe held her gaze, felt his jaw firm. "Regardless, my lady, on further consideration it will be impossible for me and Hassan to join your party."

Lady Congreve's eyes narrowed on him, something her niece couldn't see. "Surely you aren't reneging on our agreement because of Loretta?"

Yes, he was. While he'd entertained the possibility of joining forces with Lady Congreve, a lady in the latter years of her life and, he judged, with significant life experience, and had been prepared to court the risk that through him she might be exposed to the Black Cobra's minions, he would not, could not even in his most reckless mood, countenance putting a young lady like Loretta Michelmarsh in any danger whatever.

He held Lady Congreve's gaze. "There's a certain degree of risk involved in being associated with me and Hassan, and while I would have considered, should you have been agreeable once you were fully informed of that risk, accepting the positions you offered in your train, it would be unconscionable of me to continue with that arrangement while you have a young lady such as Miss Michelmarsh traveling with you."

Loretta frowned. What was going on? Her first thought on sighting the tall, blond-haired man, clearly a military man - she could tell by his stance, the way he held his broad shoulders - was a simple, albeit dazed: Who was he?

Her mind had stalled at that point, her senses scrambling to fill in details, none of them pertinent to answering that question.

How bright the golden streaks in his sandy blond hair, how unexpectedly soft his eyes of summer blue, how absurdly long his brown lashes seemed, how deliciously evocative the subtle curve of his distinctly masculine lips, how square his jaw, how imposingly tall, how strong and powerful his long body seemed to be?all those observations flashed through her mind, and none helped in the least.

Adrift, her gaze locked on him, her senses?somewhere else, all thought had suspended, and had remained beyond her reach, until he'd spoken. 

His deep voice, its timbre, the reverberation that seemed to slide down her spine and resonate within her, shook her-enough to shock her out of her mesmerized state.

Bad enough. But apparently Esme had invited him and his friend to act as their courier-guide and guard.

Her immediate thought - the first rational one after her wits had returned to her - was that Carstairs and his friend were charlatans out to rob Esme?but then he'd refused the position. 

Because of her. Why?

She listened as Esme artfully twisted Carstairs's words, then invoked his honor as an officer and a gentleman, intent on browbeating him into acquiescing to being their courier-guide, apparently all the way back to England. She could have told Carstairs that he didn't stand a chance of wriggling out of Esme's talons, but?the notion of having him squiring her around in the guise of their courier-guide filled her with an odd mix of anticipation and trepidation.

If just the sight of him could make her temporarily lose her grip on her wits, what would prolonged exposure - and closer exposure at that - do?

She couldn't afford to be distracted, especially not now. She needed to get another vignette off to her agent tomorrow; her editor was waiting on it, holding column space for it.

Over the past six years, writing as A Young Lady About London, she'd steadily developed a following with her little pieces published in the London Enquirer, three or four paragraphs of philosophical social commentary, a mix of observation and political satire all delivered with a highly sharpened pen. The public had taken to her writings, but her abrupt departure from England had put paid to that endeavor; she couldn't observe London society from abroad. But then she'd had the notion to continue in similar vein with her Window on Europe vignettes, and her public had happily followed her through her brief sojourns in France, Spain, and Italy.

She'd known Esme would halt at Trieste, so had warned her agent, and a letter from her editor had been waiting for her there.

Apparently the publisher of the Enquirer was an admirer of her work, and the paper was eager to publish whatever she could send them.

Her agent had also written informing her of the sizeable increase in remuneration the publisher was providing for each witty installment.

She'd thought her departure with Esme would spell the end of her secret career; instead, it had brought her work more forcefully to the attention of both her publisher and the public.

Her secret endeavor had taken a highly encouraging turn, but close acquaintance with Rafe Carstairs might well endanger that-in more ways than he imagined.

Yet she couldn't help but be curious over what, exactly, he was so set on keeping her away from.

"Perhaps," she suggested, taking advantage of a temporary silence, "Mr. Carstairs might explain what this unprecedented danger inherent on being associated with him and Mr. Hassan is?"

Carstairs, who she had to admit was giving Esme a run for her money in the stubborn stakes and was presently giving every indication of being as immovable as a monolith, lifted his sky blue eyes to her. He studied her for a fraught moment, then looked down at Esme. "There is no point continuing this discussion. We cannot - "


The quiet word came from Hassan, who had retreated to stand by the window; turning, Rafe saw him looking outside. 

Glancing up from whatever he'd seen, Hassan met his eyes. "Before you make your decision you should consider this."

Rafe inclined his head to Esme and her great-niece. "A moment, if you would."

He crossed to Hassan. Halting alongside, Rafe looked down through the lace curtains to the street below. 

To where two Black Cobra cultists were ambling along, looking this way and that.

"They are looking, watching, not searching specifically," Hassan said.

"Which means they don't yet know we're here."

"True, but?" Hassan waited until Rafe raised his gaze to his before continuing, "What will happen if they learn we have been here, not just in Buda but here in this room, speaking with these ladies?"

Rafe's heart sank.

"The cult will not have forgotten that it was a young English lady, Miss Ensworth, who brought you and the others the Cobra's letter. Even if we part from the ladies now, that will not save them - the cultists will reason that they have to be stopped and they and their baggage searched, just in case."

"Damn!" Rafe all but ground his teeth. After a moment, he murmured, "We shouldn't go on with them and expose them to danger, but not being their guards might be even more dangerous for them."

"So I think."

Rafe sighed and turned - and discovered Lady Congreve just behind him. She'd been peering around his shoulder.

Raising her eyes to his face, she arched her brows. "I think, dear boy, that you had better tell us all." Swinging around, she led the way back to the chaise. "And as we are, apparently, to be traveling companions all the way to England, you may call me Esme."

Elegantly sitting, beckoning her great-niece to sit alongside her, she lifted openly curious eyes to his face.

Rafe stifled a groan, but, accepting the inevitable, walked to the chair he'd earlier occupied. Once Loretta Michelmarsh sat, he sat, too.

Drawing in a long breath, he started at the beginning. "Several years ago, a man - an English gentleman of noble family - went out to India and, exploiting his position in the Governor of Bombay's office, devised and created a native cult. The cult of the Black Cobra."

He had them call in their maids, then related the story in its most abbreviated version, alluding only where necessary and in general terms to the atrocities committed by the cult; those he deemed too ghastly to be described in polite company. 

By the time he finished, the sky outside was darkening and evening was closing in.

Esme had listened intently, putting shrewd questions here and there. She hadn't been all that surprised to learn that the man Rafe and his friends were working to expose as the Black Cobra was Roderick Ferrar, the Earl of Shrewton's younger son.

Esme's lips had tightened, her features growing severe. "I never did like that boy - or his father, come to that. Vicious blackguards, the Shrewtons, except for the heir, Kilworth. He's altogether a different sort."

Rafe took her word for that. All he cared about was bringing Roderick Ferrar to justice.

"So let me see if I have this correct." Somewhat to Rafe's surprise, Loretta Michelmarsh had seemed as fascinated with his mission as her great-aunt. "You are one of four, for want of a better term, couriers, who left Bombay on the same day, all heading for England by different routes. All four are carrying identical scroll-holders, but only one contains the original letter - and that original letter must reach the Duke of Wolverstone in order for the Black Cobra to be stopped."

When she paused and opened her blue eyes wide at him, he nodded. "In a nutshell, that's it."

"So which do you have - one of the decoys, or the vital original?"

Rafe shook his head. "The four of us decided that information shouldn't be revealed to anyone, not even shared among us."

"In case this fiend of a snake seizes one of you and tries to coerce the information from them in order to concentrate solely on the one who carries the original?" Esme nodded. "Excellent idea. Don't tell us. We don't need to know that you're carrying the original."

Expression blank, Rafe stared at her, but Esme only smiled.

"The Duke of Wolverstone." Loretta glanced at Esme. "Isn't he something of a secret war hero? A spymaster or some such?"

"At one time. He retired some years ago, then assumed the title, but I seriously doubt he'll have lost his lauded skills." Esme met Rafe's eyes. "If you're working for Royce, Dalziel - Wolverstone - whatever name he goes by these days, then as loyal Englishwomen it clearly behooves us to do whatever we can to aid your quest."

Rafe inwardly blinked. If he'd known Wolverstone's name would have such an effect, he'd have used it sooner. 

"Regardless, however, now that we know about your mission and have been seen with you by people the serpent's minions might question, then there's clearly no option other than to join forces." Esme smiled with satisfaction. "So no more muttering - you, dear boy, henceforth will be our courier-guide, and Hassan will be our guard."

Esme glanced at Loretta, then looked back at Rafe. "Which makes us your charges." Her smile was triumph incarnate.

Lips thin, Rafe nodded, then with a glance at Loretta, added, "Until we reach England."

The Black Cobra Quartet started in India. Why India?

Part of the challenge of being a career author is to keep the stories fresh, so I'm always searching for something a little different. The concept for the quartet grew from a straightforward question: at Waterloo the Cynsters fought with a heavy cavalry troop, which means at least 20 men, so what happened to the others - presumably all men like the Cynsters-after Waterloo? Some would almost certainly have stayed in the army, but what did the British army do after Waterloo? The answer was India, which, for the 140 years post-Waterloo, became increasingly important to the British Empire. India, and Englishmen returning from there, were very much a part of British life for a very large slice of the 1800s. Once I realized that I had a group of heroes serving with the British Army in India, the rest of the storyline evolved organically, very much a case of "If that is so, then this must happen next."

In the quartet, each book's hero leaves Bombay and returns to England via a different and often exotic route. Rafe Carstairs is the hero in The Reckless Bride-tell us about the route he follows in returning to England's shores.

Of the four heroes, Rafe has the longest journey, which is primarily overland. From Bombay he rides north and west, through the Northwestern Frontier (now Pakistan) and travels through what is now Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, crosses the Black Sea and reaches Bulgaria. He has to flee Black Cobra cultists, but manages to give them the slip somewhere near the southern tip of the Transylvanian Alps, and tacks north to reach Buda. From there, because he has to juggle the timing of reaching England, and he can't arrive on the Channel coast too early because he would be a sitting duck for the cult assassins there, he elects to travel by boat up the Danube, then across by carriage to Strasbourg to pick up another boat and travel down the Rhine. Because of the imperatives of both timing and avoiding the cultists scattered throughout the cities of Europe, this mode of travel stood out as an obvious choice. It was also a lot of fun for me - and hopefully the readers - to follow along as Rafe and his party sweep from Buda through Vienna and many other historic towns, then travel through the Black Forest to Strasbourg and once on the Rhine, there's many magical moments with the fairytale castles and gracious river towns.

In writing of Rafe's journey, did you draw on any of your own experiences?

Yes, both in the Prologue scene in the caravanseri, and in Strasbourg. I visited Afghanistan many decades ago, and visited a caravanseri - they are all very isolated, so I knew exactly what I was describing there. And in Strasbourg I was largely walking through my own memories. As for all the scenes in England, I lived there for some years and the sections of the country featured in the four volumes of the quartet are all familiar to me.

Were there any special challenges you faced in researching the trip?

The biggest challenge was not putting in too much - when studying such old cities, with such rich cultural and architectural heritages, there's an abundance of sights and attractions that Rafe's party might have chosen to view. The most beguiling thing was that so many of said sights and attractions have been preserved, and are still there today, which makes it easy to get pictures, and details, andit's all very tempting to write about it all.

The heroine in The Reckless Bride has a rather unusual hobby-cum-career as a news sheet columnist. Were there such writers in Regency days?

When I looked I discovered there were a surprising number of "news sheets" and periodicals being published at that time, perhaps even more than today. Many of the periodicals we would consider the forerunners of today's magazines. And yes, there were indeed "correspondents" or "contributors" from various walks of life, including the upper classes. The latter, for the obvious social reasons, wrote under pen-names, or, as Loretta, the heroine in The Reckless Bride, does, under a byline-title such as, in her case, "A Young Lady About London."

In each volume of the quartet, various Cynsters and members of the Bastion Club appear as secondary characters. Was it part of your original concept to revisit these earlier heroes and heroines?

Not to the degree that has come to be. Initially, I knew that the five officers who went to India were friends of the Cynsters, the six cousins who fought at Waterloo, so that connection was there from the initial concept. Once the plot started evolving, it seemed obvious that, when the five officers in India needed advice on how to bring down the Black Cobra, they would appeal to Devil Cynster - and given the nature of their request, in that they knew they had to accuse a member of the aristorcracy, and given Devil's connection with Royce, Duke of Wolverstone, then of course Devil would ask Royce. Once Royce was involvedall the rest fell into place. The overall plan to bring down the Black Cobra is largely of Royce's making, and of course he would only use those people he could trust to carry out the various mini-missions involved in the whole - namely the Cynster cousins and the members of the Bastion Club. The timing of the quartet was fortuitous as the five officers had to have been in India for some years, and over those years both the Cynster cousins and the Bastion Club members had married, settled down, and started raising their familiesand it was very easy to imagine that those previously very active gentlemen might be quick to seize the chance of being involved in an adventure again.

The Black Cobra is a very different, very complex sort of villain. Was there a reason for creating such a well-screened villain?

Because of having four books, the Black Cobra had to be a Russian-doll sort of villain-in each book, our protagonists, and the readers along with them, peel off one layer only to find they still haven't got to the truth - to the real Black Cobra. Exposing the real Black Cobra becomes more and more chancy, less and less certain, as the books progress, until toward the end our protagonists know they are truly at the point of having only this one last throw of the diceand they very nearly lose the game. The real Black Cobra was clear to me from the first, and given that, their liking for secrecy, their habit of hiding their identity, was something that would necessarily occur. Secrecy was from the first an intrinsic part of their character - they couldn't have existed any other way. The Russian-doll effect was therefore relatively easy to achieve, because it was a natural extension of the character who was the real Black Cobra.

Now the Black Cobra has been vanquished, what's next ftrom Stephanie Laurens?

There are two answers to that. First, at the end of The Reckless Bride, Neville Roscoe, who we first met in The Edge of Desire, reappears to lend a hand in dealing with a minor villain. Roscoe, too, is a very complex, highly secretive man, one who had lived his adult life on the borderline between polite society and the criminal world, but to all, he is very much a mystery man. His book, the plot of which picks up from that brief appearance in The Reckless Bride, is high on my "likely to be next" list.

The other project on that list is the long-awaited return to the romances of the Cynster family-a trilogy involving the connected romances of Gabriel and Lucifer's three sisters, Heather, Eliza and Angelica. The books follow one after the other, all are set in Scotland, and are adventure-dramas with a touch of mystery-much along the lines of Errol Flynn rescues Jane Austen in the wilds of Scotland, with the third book being more Jane Austen rescues Errol Flynn in the Scottish Highlands.

Which of those two projects will reach the readers first is currently up in the air, but the answer will be announced in my website newsletter in October.

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