|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Her debut novel Trade Winds, a historical romance and adventure story, was short-listed for the Pure Passion Award for Best Historical Fiction 2011. Her second novel, The Scarlet Kimono, received the Best Historical Fiction prize for the Big Red Read 2011. Her novels Highland Storms and The Gilded Fan both won the Historical Novel of the Year award (Highland Storms in 2012 and The Gilded Fan in 2014), while The Silent Touch of Shadows (time slip) won the Festival of Romance award for Best Historical in 2013.
Christina also writes contemporary YA and New England Rocks was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award in the YA category in 2014.
Her hobbies include genealogy, archaeology (the armchair variety), listening to loud rock music and collecting things. She loves dogs, reading and chocolate.
Read an Excerpt
Surat, India – May 1759
'I say, it's rather warm in here, isn't it?'
'Do you think so?' Zarmina Miller swallowed a sigh and tried to resist rolling her eyes. Here we go again. Honestly, couldn't he think of anything more original?
To be fair, the young man next to her – George Carmichael – was newly arrived from England to take up his post as writer, or junior tally clerk, to the English East India Company's factors in Surat. It would probably take months before he became acclimatised to the Indian heat and, unlike her, he seemed to be in genuine discomfort. The months of April and May were the hottest of the year, with temperatures soaring daily and the humidity nigh unbearable. Zar could see perspiration pouring down the sides of Mr Carmichael's face, from his temples all the way into the folds of his neckcloth, and his cheeks were mottled red with prickly heat rash. She guessed the itchy areas covered other parts of him as well and felt a pang of sympathy.
Still, it was the same excuse they all used to get her on her own. She swept a gaze round the large dining hall of the so called Factory, where this gathering was taking place, while she waited for the inevitable next sentence. It wasn't long in coming.
'Would you care to take a turn with me in the roof garden? I'm sure it will be much cooler up there.'
Zar could have given him a hundred reasons why she didn't want to go anywhere with him, but thought it best to get this over with. 'Yes, thank you, why not?' she said in a falsely cheerful voice. In order to avoid taking his arm, however, she swept off in the direction of the stairs before he had time to register her acquiescence.
The roof garden wasn't really a garden as such. It was just a large space, enclosed by a balustrade, with a few plants in pots and some benches placed at discreet intervals. A slight breeze whispered round the greenery, which usually made it a pleasant spot for a leisurely stroll in the evening, but at this time of year it was still stiflingly hot. At least to foreigners. There were times when Zar blessed the fact that she was a half-caste. The blood of Indian ancestors coursing through her veins gave her a distinct advantage when it came to coping with the weather conditions.
Zar glanced behind her and saw Mr Carmichael draw in a deep breath, as if he was relieved to escape the stuffiness of the room below. He wiped his brow with a large handkerchief and surreptitiously loosened his neckcloth a little, pulling it away from where it stuck to his skin. Then he hurried after her as she began to walk towards the nearest bench.
'Shall we ...' he began, but Zar had already stopped.
'Sit down? Yes, of course.' She gathered her skirts and seated herself, spreading them out around her, which left him only a small space at the end of the bench. Normally she preferred Indian clothing, as it was much more suited to the climate here, but she had to acknowledge that English fashions came in useful for keeping suitors at a distance. The small hoop with its wide petticoat and overdress was a very effective barrier. If Mr Carmichael noticed her deliberate ploy, he was too much of a gentleman to comment, but he swivelled towards her as much as her gown would allow.
He cleared his throat. 'I, er ... understand you are a widow, Mrs Miller.'
'Yes, that's right. My husband died last year.' Zar was sure he already knew this and much more besides, but she humoured him for the sake of politeness. No one ever mentioned her wealth; that would be plain vulgar.
'Then you must be very lonely. It's difficult for a woman on her own, I dare say.'
'Not at all, I enjoy solitude.'
He looked baffled for a moment, then forced a laugh. 'Oh, I see, you jest.' Another guffaw. 'Very funny, to be sure.'
Zar kept quiet. She'd learned that the less she said, the sooner the ordeal would be over and done with.
'The thing is ...' Mr Carmichael cleared his throat again. 'The thing is, Mrs Miller, I was wondering ... that is to say, as you do not seem to have formed an attachment to anyone presently stationed here at the Factory, I thought ... what I mean is ...'
Zar wanted to scream. For heaven's sake, spit it out, man!
'Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?' Mr Carmichael finally forced the words out in such a rush that, had Zar not been expecting them, she might have missed what he said.
She looked out over the balustrade to the more or less sleeping city around them and shook her head. 'I thank you for your kind offer, but I'm afraid the answer is no, Mr Carmichael. I'm very sorry.'
'I know it's a bit sudden and we haven't known each other very long. I own, perhaps, I should have waited a bit, but I thought that with you in such a precarious situation and —'
'Mr Carmichael.' Zar turned to him and pinned him to his seat with her most earnest gaze. 'Please believe me when I say that nothing would induce me to marry at this time. I'm perfectly happy without a husband and should I need any male assistance, I have a stepson who can take care of anything I ask him to.' No need to tell Mr Carmichael that William was the last man on earth she'd go to for help.
Zar stifled another sigh. Some men were incredibly obtuse. 'I consider this matter closed, Mr Carmichael, and would thank you not to refer to it again. At any time,' she added, just to make it perfectly clear.
'I see.' Mr Carmichael's expression turned sulky, in the manner of a small boy, which did nothing to make Zar change her mind. He wasn't bad-looking and she had no doubt he was a decent enough man, but she didn't feel anything for him and couldn't imagine marrying him, so she kept her eyes fixed on his. He finally seemed to understand and backed down. 'Well, then, I suppose I should take my leave,' he muttered.
Feeling sorry for his wounded pride, Zar took pity on him. 'I thought you wished to take the air as it's a bit cooler up here.' She stood up and waited. 'Shall we at least walk around the perimeter? There is a lovely view of the river in the moonlight.'
He hesitated for a moment, then offered her his arm, which she accepted, although she was careful only to place a few fingers on his sleeve with the lightest of touches. 'By all means, Mrs Miller, by all means.'
Zar breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness for that. Now perhaps she'd be left alone until the next new arrivals.
Madras, India — May 1759
The so called 'Black Town' of Madras was an area to the north of the English Fort St George, laid out in a neat grid pattern of streets. As Jamie entered it late one afternoon, a fresh sea breeze made the air temperature bearable and went some way towards diminishing the usual city odours. He glimpsed the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the distance to his right, glittering invitingly. Although he didn't notice the heat as much as he once had, having been in this part of the world for so many years now, the thought of a swim was still tempting. The fact that he was wearing native clothing kept him relatively cool though. He'd adopted the Mohammedan style — loose fitting trousers, a shirt with long narrow sleeves and a long coat, all made of fine white cotton. A turban protected his head from the sun's rays, and the simple Hindu shoes that looked like slippers on his bare feet helped too.
He headed for the northern half of the town where Indian merchants and craftsmen had their newly built houses. Earlier in the year, during January and February, the French had besieged Madras. Their artillery fire had gutted most of the houses, especially in the Black Town, but buildings were springing up everywhere now the French were routed. It was with some satisfaction that Jamie recalled what he'd heard recently — the English troops were on the offensive, winning victories everywhere.
'And good riddance, messieurs,' he muttered. Not that he had anything against the French personally, but their infernal warmongering here hindered his trading activities. He'd be glad if they were evicted from the sub-continent for good or a peace of some sort could be agreed.
Passing whitewashed houses, some in a better state than others, he reached the one he was looking for. Its walls hadn't been affected much by the recent fighting, although he noticed they were freshly painted, but the roof looked new in the fading light. Jamie frowned as he stopped in front of the closed door and listened. He'd expected it to be open, with the usual early evening activity, but no sounds emanated from inside the building. It seemed empty and lifeless.
He rapped on the door, his knuckles making a sound like a pistol shot. 'Hello? Anyone there? Open up.'
Nothing. No footsteps, no voices, not a sound from within.
Jamie took a step back, puzzled, then went over to the house next door. An old man sat on the ground outside, cross-legged. When asked about his neighbour, however, he shook his head and without meeting Jamie's gaze muttered, 'Gone.'
'What do you mean, gone? Where exactly? And why? Has he been arrested? Or do you mean there's illness about?'
'Don't know. Just left. All of them, whole family.' The old man still wouldn't look at Jamie, which made the latter suspicious.
'There must have been some reason.' But he could tell he wouldn't learn what it was from this man.
He went back to stand outside his friend's front door. Akash was a lapidary and gem trader who had, rather reluctantly at first, taken Jamie on as an apprentice four years before. He'd stared at Jamie in disbelief when he arrived unannounced and asked to learn all about gemstones, but Jamie had stood his ground.
'I've been told you speak some English and that you're the best diamond cutter in town. I want to learn. Please, will you teach me? I'll make it worth your while.'
'Why?' The one word and black gaze had told Jamie that Akash thought it the whim of a bored and spoiled rich man, which was partly true. But Jamie had other reasons for wanting to immerse himself in the world of precious stones. He needed to forget his old life, his former self, and fill his mind with new images and knowledge.
To Akash he said only, 'I can't become a successful trader unless I know all about the goods, and I see no better way of learning than by starting at the beginning, when stones are cut and polished. I never do anything by halves and I'm serious about this. I want to become the best foreign gem merchant in India.'
The lapidary seemed to read between the lines and Jamie found out later that Akash had heard the unspoken words too. The desperation of a man at the end of his tether, a man needing the distraction of learning. He was wise enough not to mention this at the time.
From that day on he never questioned Jamie about his reasons again, waiting for the foreigner to be ready to confide his secrets by himself. And he generously taught Jamie everything he knew — splitting, cutting, polishing and valuing — until Jamie was ready to begin to trade. They'd worked together on and off now for a couple of years, their bond growing stronger all the time. Akash wouldn't just up and leave without some sort of message.
So where the hell was he?
Jamie glared at the closed door and gave it an impatient push. It didn't budge. Muttering a curse, he went round to the back of the house where a high wall encircled a courtyard. From nearby homes enticing cooking smells emanated and voices rose and fell as the occupants went about their daily business, but here there were no sounds. The lapidary workshop was silent and the lathe still. And yet ...
Jamie cocked his head to one side, listening intently. He was sure he'd heard a slight scuffling noise, as if someone was trying to keep another person quiet or confined. Someone could be holding Akash prisoner. He had to check. Backing up a bit, he took a running jump at the wall and managed to heave himself up to the top, straddling it. He slung the other leg over and dropped to the ground, as lithe as a cat, alert and looking for movement. Just inside the open back door of the main building, he thought he saw a shadow shift ever so slightly.
Right, got you.
He slipped off his footwear and proceeded barefoot across the courtyard, glancing left and right to make sure he wasn't ambushed by some assailant. He slid a long dagger out of the sheath at his belt and held it ready. Then he peeked round the door frame into the house and stopped dead. His friend was sitting on the floor, bent forward with his head in his hands.
'Akash?' He whispered the question, since he didn't yet know what was happening. It was gloomy inside the house and Jamie wasn't sure if they were alone, but at the sound of Jamie's voice, Akash shot upright and blinked.
'Jamie! I thought you were in Burma or Calcutta. By all the gods, am I glad to see you!'
Since Akash wasn't bothering to keep his voice down, Jamie surmised there was no danger and put his dagger away. But something still wasn't right. He looked around the empty room and frowned. 'I came back sooner than expected. What's the matter?'
Akash stood up and came to clasp Jamie in a quick embrace. 'A lot has happened. I would have sent for you if I could, but I didn't know how to reach you.'
'Why? Where is your family? Please tell me what's going on?' Jamie was appalled to find Akash looking drawn and tired. It was unlike the normally even-tempered man who always worked with a smile on his face.
'They've been taken.' Akash seemed to be struggling for composure and a cold shiver of apprehension slithered down Jamie's back.
'Taken? What do you mean?'
Akash swallowed and closed his eyes briefly. 'I will tell you everything, but you must promise not to breathe a word to a soul.' 'Of course. You know you can trust me.' Jamie would never do anything to jeopardise his friend.
'Then come, I want to show you something.' Akash led Jamie outside and into the workshop across the yard, shutting the door behind them.
While staying with Akash, Jamie had lived like a native and without thinking he sank down to sit cross-legged next to his friend on a floor mat. They spoke in Hindi, which Jamie had learned as he worked through his apprenticeship. Unlike most people in the region, Akash and his family didn't speak Tamil at home, because they'd come from the north originally. Jamie was grateful for this, as Hindi had proved more useful when conducting business, although he'd picked up enough Tamil as well to get by since he had an ear for languages.
'So what happened?' he prompted.
Akash fiddled with his belt, then sighed and began his tale. 'Last night, I went to visit my brother Sanjiv who, as you know, lives only a couple of streets away. I stayed talking to him for a while and by the time I got back here it was fully dark. As I entered the house, a man grabbed me from behind and put a hand over my mouth. He hissed that I had to keep quiet and not struggle — my family's lives depended on it. So, of course, I nodded. What else could I do?'
'Who was this man? And where was your wife and the children?'
Meera, Akash's wife, had treated Jamie like a member of the family while he stayed with them and he'd appreciated her quiet care. As for the two lovely dark-haired and dark-eyed children, Jamie couldn't bear the thought of anyone harming them. He'd come to love them as if they were his own. They had reminded him daily of the baby he'd left behind, but by caring for Akash's offspring he felt he'd atoned somewhat for his shortcomings when it came to Margot.
'I don't know who he was. He said my family had been taken hostage and would be kept somewhere safe until I did what was asked of me. When I became agitated, he assured me they were well and would not be mistreated as long as I cooperated.' Akash passed a hand over his brow, drawing in a deep breath, and Jamie waited for him to continue. 'The man said I had to find a trustworthy person, a courier, to take something to Surat. Something very important, but secret.' 'I see.' Jamie thought he understood and hazarded a guess. 'A valuable gemstone?' Travelling was always a danger, with bandits and other brigands a plague on the roads. A man had to be very careful when transporting something precious.
Akash shook his head. 'Not the way you think.' With jerky movements, he reached underneath his workbench and withdrew a small bundle, which he held out to Jamie. 'Take a look at this.'
Excerpted from "Monsoon Mists"
Copyright © 2014 Christina Courtenay.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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