Read an Extract
7th December 1808. Calcutta, India…
“Lady Grimshaw?” Dita produced an attentive expression.
The old gorgon was going to be a passenger too and Dita had
learned to pick her battles.
“That is hardly a suitable colour for an unmarried
girl. And such flimsy fabric too.”
“It is a sari I had remade, Lady Grimshaw. I find pastels
and white make me appear sallow.” Dita was well aware
of her few good features and how to enhance them to perfection
and the deep green brought out the colour of her eyes and
the dark gold highlights in her brown hair. The delicate silk
floated over the fine lawn under-garments as though she was
“Humph. And what’s this I hear about riding on
the maidan at dawn? Galloping?”
“It is too hot to gallop at any other time of day,
ma’am. And I did have my syce with me.”
“A groom is neither here nor there, my girl. It is
fast behaviour. Very fast.”
“Surely speed is the purpose of the gallop?” Dita said
sweetly, and drifted away before the matron could think of
a suitably crushing retort. She gestured to a servant for
a glass of punch, another fast thing for a young lady to be
doing. She sipped it as she walked, wrinkling her nose at
the amount of arack it contained, then stopped as
a slight stir around the doorway heralded a new arrival.
“Who is that?” Averil appeared at her side and gestured
towards the door. “My goodness, what a very good looking man.”
She fanned herself as she stared.
He was certainly that. Tall, lean, very tanned, the thick
black silk of his hair cut ruthlessly short. Dita stopped
breathing then sucked down air. No, of course not, it could
not be Alistair: she was imagining things.
The man entered limping, impatient, as though the handicap
infuriated him but he was going to ignore it. Once in, he
surveyed the room with unhurried assurance. The scrutiny paused
at Dita, flickered over her face, dropped to study the low-cut
neckline of her gown, then moved on to Averil for a further
For all the world like a pasha inspecting a new intake for
the seraglio, Dita thought. But despite the unfamiliar arrogance,
she knew. It is him. It is Alistair.
After nine years. Dita fought a battle with the urge to run.
“Insufferable,” Averil murmured. She had blushed a
“Insufferable, no doubt. Arrogant, certainly,“ Dita
replied, not troubling to lower her voice as he came closer.
Attack, her instincts told her. Strike before
you weaken and he can hurt you again. “And he obviously
fancies himself quite the romantic hero, my dear. You note
the limp? Positively Gothic - straight out of a sensation
The man stopped and turned. He made no pretence of not having
heard her. “A young lady who addles her brain with trashy
fiction, I gather.” The intervening years had not darkened
the curious amber eyes that as a child she had always believed
belonged to a tiger. Memories surfaced, some bitter sweet,
some simply bitter. She felt her chin go up as she returned
the stare in frigid silence, but he had not recognised her.
He turned a little more and bowed to Averil. “My pardon, ma’am,
if I put you to the blush. One does not often see such beauty.”
The movement exposed the right side of his head. Down the
cheek from just in front of the ear, across the jaw bone and
onto his neck, there was a half-healed scar that vanished
into the white lawn of his neck cloth. His right hand, she
saw, was bandaged. The limp was not affectation after all;
he had been hurt, and badly. Dita stifled the instinct to
touch him, demand to know what had happened as she once would
have done, without inhibition.
Beside her she heard her friend’s sharp indrawn breath. “I
do not regard it, sir.” Averil nodded with cool dismissal
and walked away towards the chaperones, then turned when she
reached their sanctuary, her face comically dismayed as she
realised Dita had not followed her.
I should apologise to him, Dita thought. But
he ogled us so blatantly. And he cut at me just as he had
that last time. And he only apologised to Averil: her
own looks would win no compliments from this man.
“My friend is as gracious as she is beautiful,” she
said and the amber eyes, still warm from following Averil’s
retreat, moved back to hers. He frowned at the tart sweetness
of her tone. “She can find it in herself to forgive almost
anyone, even presumptuous rakes.” Which is what Alistair
appeared to have grown into.
And on that note she should turn on her heel, perhaps with
a light trill of laughter, or a flick of her fan, and leave
him to annoy some other lady. But it was difficult to move,
when wrenching her eyes away from his meant they fell to his
mouth. It did not curve - he could not be said to be smiling
- but one corner deepened into something that was almost a
dimple. Not of course that such an arrogant hunk of masculinity
could be said to have anything as charming as a dimple.
“I am rightly chastised,” he said. There was something
provocative in the way that he said it that sent a little
shock through her, although she had no idea why. Then she
realised that he was speaking to her as a woman, not as the
girl he had thought her when he had so cruelly dismissed her
before. It was almost as though he was suggesting that she
carry out the chastisement more personally.
Dita told herself that one could overcome bushes by sheer
force of will, especially as she had no very exact idea what
she was blushing about. “You do not appear remotely penitent,
sir,” she retorted. Sooner or later he would realise who he
was talking to, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction
of acknowledging him.
“I never said I was, ma’am, merely that I acknowledged
a reproof. There is no amusement in penitence: why, one would
have to either give up the sin or be a hypocrite - and where’s
the fun in that?”
“I have no idea whether you are a hypocrite or not,
sir, but certainly no-one could accuse you of gallant behaviour.”
“You struck first,” he pointed out, accurately and
“For which I apologise,” Dita said. She was not going
to act as badly as he. Even as she made the resolution her
tongue got the better of her. “But I have no intention of
offering sympathy, sir. You obviously enjoy fighting.” He
had always been intense, often angry, as a youth.
“Indeed.” He flexed the bandaged hand and winced slightly.
“You should see the other fellow.”
“I have no wish to. You appear to have been hacking
at each other with sabres.”
“Near enough,” he agreed.
Something in the mocking, cultured tones still held the
faintest burr of the West Country. A wave of nostalgia for
home and the green hills and the fierce cliffs and the cold
sea gripped her with painful intensity, over-riding even the
shock of seeing Alistair again.
“You still have the West Country in your voice,” Dita
“North Cornwall, near the boundary with Devon. And
you?” He did not appear to find the way she had phrased the
He misses it too, she thought, hearing the hint
of longing under the cool tone. “I too, come from that
area.” Without calculation she put out her hand and he caught
it in his uninjured, ungloved, left. His hand was warm and
hard with a rider’s calluses and his fingertips rested against
her pulse, which was racing. Once before he had held her hand
like this, once before they had stood so close and she had
read the need in his eyes and she had misunderstood and acted
recklessly and had been savaged for her foolishness.
She could not play games any longer. Sooner or later he would
find out who she was, and if she made a mystery of it he would
think she still remembered, still attached some importance
to what had happened between them. What had almost happened.
“My family lives at Combe.”
“You are a Brooke? One of the Earl of Wycombe’s
family?” He moved nearer, her hand still held in his as he
drew her to him to study her face. Close-to he seemed to take
the air out of the space between them. Too close, too
male. Alistair. Oh my lord, he has grown up. “Why, you
are never little Dita Brooke? But you were all angles and
nose and legs.” He grinned. “I used to put frogs in your pinafore
pocket and you tagged along everywhere. But you have changed
since I last saw you. You must have been twelve.” His amusement
stripped the nine years from him.
“I was fifteen,” she said with all the icy reserve
she could manage. All angles and nose. “I recall
you - and your frogs - as an impudent youth while I was growing
up. But I was fifteen when you left home.” Fifteen
when I kissed you with all the fervour and love that was filling
me and you used me and brushed me aside like an importunate
whore. But he doesn’t seem to remember – or he
is not admitting it. But how could he forget? Perhaps there
have been so many women one inept chit of a girl is infinitely