When Lord Coventon returns to the Masala Rajah Gentleman’s Retreat, his marriage a shambles and dreams of reuniting with Kali Matai naught but ancient fantasy, Madame Mayuri Falodiya has a plan to take his mind off his troubles-Nayana Patel, in need of a protector, but unsure how to entice this taciturn nobleman.
Deena Karan has always had a soft spot for Lord Coventon, for years ago, after a vicious attack cut short her brief career as a tawaif, he helped her recover and establish a successful bakery to earn her living. Still, she vows to help her friend, Nayana, win his attentions, for she knows he could never look past her scarred face. Could he?
© 2016 Mariana Gabrielle
Table of Contents
Mayuri Falodiya rose to her feet as the Marquess of Coventon crossed her drawing room for the first time in almost a decade. His frame was still tall and lean, but slightly stooped now, as though he had carried too heavy a weight for too long, and the laugh lines she remembered so clearly were outnumbered by creases dragging his mouth into a weary frown. Her butler trailed behind, trying to relieve Lord Coventon of his coat, hat, and cane, but stepped back as she allowed the marquess to kiss her hand.
“I am pleasantly surprised to see you, my lord. It has been a good many years.”
There was no need for a reminder of the last time he had been in this room: the night he asked her advice on breaking his contract of protection with Kali Matai, the Black Goddess, who was, then, only beginning her rise to fame and fortune as a dancer. To him, she had been, first and foremost, his beloved paramour. Her presence was palpable in the room.
“It is difficult to think of you as Lord Coventon now, after knowing you for so many years as Fitz. Of course, I follow your actions in Parliament in the papers with the rest of England, but I admit great curiosity about the type of man you have become since your marriage and elevation.”
She took his hat and cane and handed them to the butler, then ran her hand up the collar of his coat, allowing her fingertips to drift underneath, then guide him to shrug it off his shoulders. When she gave it to the servant, she told him, under her voice, to bring tea and an extra decanter of cashew feni.
Coventon had always been a restless man, but now he seemed touchy, nervous, bouncing from one foot to another, his eyes shifting back and forth, not meeting hers for more than a few moments at a time. She reached out to touch the greying hair at his temple, but he shied away. Mayuri smoothly turned the truncated motion into the offer of a seat before her fireplace.
“Your age suits you well, Your Lordship. You are as handsome as ever.”
“Flattery is a young man’s flaw.”
He hesitated to sit, and she chivvied him to the chair, clucking her tongue. “Did I not think your looks worthy of notice, I could have flattered the cut of your coat or your wealth or position or wisdom in matters of politics. You may be sure I can always find a genuine compliment to pay a gentleman. Will you have dinner tonight?” She smirked slightly. “My girls will surely wish to compete for your attentions.”
With his fundament halfway to a resting spot, he startled and stopped himself, hands on his knees, before slowly lowering himself into the armchair. “I do not wish—that is… no girls, if you please. I’d just like to make myself quietly drunk, perhaps play a game of cards with whomever is about. Some food later, but to start: feni. Perhaps to finish as well, should the night progress as expected, and a bed, though I will prefer to sleep alone. Can you accommodate?”
“There are few noblemen I will not accommodate, and you are not listed among their number.” Crossing to her liquor cabinet, she poured his first glass of feni, which she expected he would take quickly, like medicine.
She was not the least surprised when he held the glass out for a second ration. Once it had been poured, he settled back slightly in the chair, relaxing his shoulders just enough to signal he wouldn’t bolt.
They sat in silence for long minutes, he twisting his glass in his hands, she watching him fight with himself. Finally, she said, “Do you still smoke seegars, my lord?”
He laughed, with an edge that brushed against her heart. “By all means. Kali would say it is an evening to celebrate!” He downed the spirits and held out the glass again, so she poured. If he must be removed, dead drunk, to a solitary bed in a quarter-hour, so be it.
“There is little celebration in your eyes, my lord, and as you bring up Kali, she would beg I provide whatever succor you might wish, if only you will tell me how I can best soothe.”
She opened a drawer in the side table between their chairs and offered a seegar, which he accepted. “Genevieve hates tobacco.”
“Then it is well your wife is not here to be bothered by the smoke. I rather enjoy it, myself.” She cut and lit it. “We are not unknown to each other, you and I, though it has been so many years. I hope you remember I will keep your confidence.”
He had been very young the night he spent in Mayuri’s bed and bared parts of his soul no other woman had seen before or since, even Kali. And she had been wise enough to never take him to bed again, rather providing him his choice of all her other girls until he learned the difference between being in love, being infatuated, and being in bed with a whore, years before Kali had even come to London. “How may I be of help to my old friend this eve?”
After a few draws and puffs in her generous silence, he said, “By God’s grace, I am granted a second son today.”
Without being so bold as to express an opinion by her tone, she said, “Congratulations, my lord. He is healthy?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. A strapping thing, with a fine set of lungs and a strong kick. Lord Joseph Henry Gildeforte. I could not be happier with His Little Lordship. As beautiful a baby as his brother and sister before him.”
His frame straightened when he spoke of his new son, and his eyes lit from within. She had never doubted he would be a loving father, as he had always been a kind, fair, even-tempered man, but it was good to see proof of the promise, years later.
She sat quietly, her hands draped motionless across her lap. He would only come to the point in his own good time. Kali had shared as much with Mayuri out of sheer frustration, while she had been contracted to him.
He looked away, his face flushed, one hand running through his hair. “He’s the spare, you see. With the heir and spare delivered, my wife has asked I keep myself away from her bedchamber, and has suggested I take a mistress.”
Mayuri raised a brow. By nearly all moral codes, and by law, Lady Coventon had been bought as much as any courtesan, though for more money and with greater security. She had no right to bar the door to her bedchamber, though Lord Coventon was not the type of man to force himself on anyone, least of all, his wife.
“It has been a miserable decade, Mayuri. I find myself inclined to agree; the sound of her voice withers me. I would gladly banish her to the countryside, but I cannot deprive myself of my children, nor my children of their mother.” He finished the glass again and held it out.
She took her time pouring. “My lord, will you allow me to order you supper from the kitchen?”
He smiled. “I have missed your kitchen, Mayuri. One hates to always eat like an Englishman. Is Pranjal still your chef?”
“He is, and I believe he will give his all if he hears you have returned, for no other Englishman has ever ordered native foods delivered to his bachelor quarters. He remembers you with great fondness, I am sure, my lord, as do any of the girls you might still know in the kotha. I am sure there are a few left who will tell legends of your prowess to the younger dancers.”
“I am immune to your blandishments, vixen. You will do better to feed me and send me six sheets to the wind tonight. Perhaps I will think of mistresses another day.” He cleared his throat. “Perhaps.”
She walked across the room to find an ashtray. When she brought it back, she placed a hand on his shoulder and bent over him to set it in arm’s reach on the side table, draping her body gracefully, like an ell of silk, across his torso.
“I have known you since you were a very young man, surely too young to be in a house of ill repute, and have no trouble believing you honor your promises to Lady Coventon. You never wished to dishonor your wife, my lord. You said so to me nine years ago, sitting in exactly that chair, when we spoke of breaking your contract with Kali so you might marry, and you have never come back until you were given explicit leave.”
His entire being stilled, and she removed herself. “Kali.”
With no attempt to cushion the blow, she said, “She is contracted to another man, and it will be best for all concerned if you leave her alone.”
“Yes, Binningham. Poor sod is painfully besotted. But he is such a… is she… is she happy?”
She took her seat again. “She is not mistreated. Kali is a tawaif; she has no right to expect happiness. And she is not under your protection. Her wellbeing is another man’s concern, not yours. He has paid handsomely to own the privilege.”
He winced as though she had raised her hand to hit him. She reached between their chairs and touched his wrist in a small apology, and he didn’t pull away. Mayuri did not believe in allowing false hope, but there was no need to be cruel about it. He took the opportunity to give her his empty glass.
As she poured again, she said, not meeting his eye, “I hope you do not think I, of any person you know, would judge a decision you make about your wife or family. That would not be my place at all, nor any person on the premises.”
His voice was low and gruff. “I know that. I know it.” He choked a bit. “I just find… I am not prepared to make any such decision.”
“Of course, my lord. Might I…”
He looked up. “Yes?”
“Might I make you comfortable in a private sitting room and send Nan in to see to your needs?” At the narrowing of his eyes, she said, “Perhaps you do not recall, my lord, that any girl I place at your disposal will accommodate anything you ask, and only what you ask. Should you wish her to sit invisibly in a corner, you have only to say so. But her presence will ensure there is no delay should you have need of food or drink… or anything else.”
Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized he was holding, leaning back and crossing his legs, he said, “Yes. Yes, of course.” He stopped, his eyes roaming the room again. “I found myself… tonight…. I found myself walking here, not to White’s. I never intended… but there is a feeling of… coming home, an instinct that brought me here. I am glad the Masala Rajah is still here, and that you are willing to accommodate an old fool.”
“Not so old, my lord, and we are all fools about the people we invite to our beds.”
“I should never have given her up, Mayuri. She was perfectly right. I should have Kali under contract yet. God help me, some days I think I should have had children with her.”
“I can’t think that would be a good idea.”
“No, of course not, but still… to raise children with a woman I loved? It would have been… incomparable. A day like today would have been…well…no need to be maudlin.” He cleared his throat and uncrossed his legs.
“Noblemen,” she said, rising and straightening her skirt, “more than any others, make their decisions about love for all the wrong reasons.” She held out her hand. Without taking it, he also stood and bowed slightly, stumbling. She took his empty glass and set it aside, then wrapped her hand around his elbow, as though he were facilitating her balance, rather than the other way around. “I am certain, my lord, I can arrange to take your mind off Kali.”
She guided him out of the receiving room and down the hall.
“Cease your bleating about the newest crop of tawaif girls before you even begin, Mayuri. I will not hear it this night.”
“The blue room, my lord? It has been updated since last you saw it, but still blue, and still the third door on the right in the lower hall. There is a day bed, should you wish to rest, it is close to the kitchen, and the card room is only steps away.” She pointed out the card room, and three doors down, she stopped and opened a door with a key, then handed it to him as she ushered him inside.
Nayana entered the room and, as she had been told, remained silent and motionless and allowed him to take in her form in the sheer sari she had worn to dance in the kotha, before Mayuri had redirected her evening, possibly her life. She looked over his shoulder and past his face, not even confirming how handsome Mayuri said he was. It did not matter if he was handsome, when everyone knew the story of his contract with Kali Matai—the best terms any girl had seen before or since. His backing was the reason Kali had gained so much fame so quickly.
Nayana needed the wherewithal to leave the Masala Rajah Gentleman’s Retreat more than she needed to be enthralled with a protector. He could be fat, bald, and stink of onions, and his contract would still be preferable to working the front and back rooms of the Masala Rajah until she was too old to attract a nightly buyer—if she lived that long. And she would not be as stupid as Kali had been. She would not fall in love.
His lips fell just slightly open at the sight of her; Mayuri said he probably hadn’t even seen a sari in ten years, much less a lithe body moving underneath it. Exoticism would serve her best this night.
After a few moments of silence, however, he picked up a blanket from the day bed and threw it at her, his words slurred with drink; Mayuri said he had already overindulged.
“If you will remain in my company, cover yourself up.”
She froze, clutching the blanket to her belly. “My lord?”
“I told Mayuri not to send anyone in here to entice me. Cover yourself or leave.”
He slumped to a seat on the day bed, his hand cradling his head. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, and finally managed, “My lord, I can change my attire, if this displeases you.”
“It does. It does displease me. Go put on something… English… and ugly and shapeless. Go borrow something from a scullery maid.”
“If you will excuse me but a few minutes.”
He waved her out the door.
The warm, moist air of the kitchen hit the cold, winter wind at the servant’s door of the Masala Rajah, leaving droplets of condensation on Deena’s balaclava that would turn to ice if she turned back around. She closed the door and shifted the stack of shallow boxes balanced on her hip.
“You have taken your time, Deena,” Mayuri snapped.
Mayuri Falodiya was brusque, as always, and as usual, didn’t look Deena in the face. Her former employer hadn’t met her eyes since the day she had lost her beauty.
“I required a bit of time to cook the food you ordered before I could bring it to you, and with no one to watch the shop so I could entertain your whim, I waited until we closed for the day. I am sacrificing time with Sinha to indulge you, but I am here, and I have what you asked. I brought tomorrow’s delivery, too, with a few exceptions.”
“You will turn your boy girlish if you do not stop spoiling him. You spend every minute doing his bidding.”
“Loving my child is hardly going to ruin his chances, and I assure you, there is a ten-year-old boy at my house who would deny I ever do his bidding.” She hoisted the boxes onto a work table and began unwrapping her scarf. Everyone offered hellos, but they all looked away at the same time when she finally removed it completely. The twisted, ugly burn scars she exposed, now ten years old and as healed as they would ever be, ran across her left ear and cheek, wrapping around her throat and underneath the neckline of her dress. A stark contrast to an otherwise pretty face.
Nayana rushed into the kitchen, and as soon as Deena had cleared the door, Mayuri’s perpetual frown deepened. “What have you done? Why has he sent you away so quickly?”
“Nothing, Madame,” Nayana said, nodding a greeting to her friend, in passing. “I mean… He asked I cover myself, that I change my clothes for something ugly and shapeless.”
Mayuri nodded sadly. “So, that will be the way of things. He will torture himself first. Your old uniform dress will do. And keep out of His Lordship’s sight unless he invites you closer. Let him direct the conversation and allow him your respectful silence.”
Deena began unpacking the boxes. Ten loaves of fine-grained wheat bread; two dozen yeast rolls; three pies: raspberry, strawberry-custard, and turkey; three cakes: plum, ginger, and poppy seed; two dozen iced tea cakes; a tin of ginger biscuits; and in the last box, the urgent delivery Mayuri had sent for by messenger.
“You do not often ask for Indian food.”
“No, I cater to Englishmen.” Mayuri was more taciturn than she had ever been.
“It has been years since you ordered modak from me.”
“Yes.” Mayuri cleared her throat and poked about among the baked goods, but didn’t even try to explain the need for a large order of the sweet dumplings stuffed with coconut, jaggery, and saffron, finally leading Deena to say, “Lord Coventon has returned to the Masala Rajah after all this time?”
Mayuri turned away to start clearing the delivery from the work table. “It seems his marriage is not a happy one.”
Deena’s dark face paled, leaving the shimmering burn scars in stark relief.
At that, Nayana spoke up, “Nor is his stay here this evening happy, for I know not how to please him. You were better friends with Kali than I, Deena. How did she gain his attention?”
All three girls had finished their training at the Masala Rajah around the same time, though Kali had caught Lord Coventon’s eye from the first. Theirs had been something of a love story, albeit a tragic one, and long since ended. Nayana had been through three protectors since then, now back at the Masala Rajah with no apparent prospects, and Deena had been driven out of the business of pleasure when Lord Albemarle threw a lit oil lamp at her face, after being told she was increasing.
“How do I know that?” Deena answered. “How does any woman catch the attention of a gentleman? I have put no thought into such things in more than a decade.” Not since the last time a man had looked at her.
“He has given me leave to send him dinner,” Mayuri pronounced, “and Nayana will serve it to him, after she changes her dress. Fitz… er… Lord Coventon will recover his mood when he has eaten, and mark me, Nayana, he will apologize for being churlish. He will feel better for eating a meal that reminds him nothing of his wife.”
“Lord Fitzmarten thinks with his stomach even more than his manhood,” Deena blurted out. “Kali told me so hundreds of times.”
“She used to hire you to cook for her dinner parties,” Nayana insisted. “You must remember what she ordered. Surely Lord Coventon enjoyed it, or she would never have it at her table. Please help me win him, Deena. We have always been friends, have we not?”
Deena smiled and nodded. “Yes, we have always been that. Of course I will help you, but it has been a great many years since I knew anything to be of help.”
“Pranjal, when will Lord Coventon’s tray be ready?” Mayuri called out.
“Five more minutes, Madame.”
“He loves modak,” Deena noted, watching Mayuri bustle about preparing as exotic a meal as she could on a moment’s notice. “It might put him in a sweeter mood.”
“It might,” Mayuri agreed, taking the dumplings out and putting them on a plate, “which is why I sent the note.” She shooed Nayana out to change into the uniform she hadn’t worn in ten years. Once the other girl had left, Deena helped to put her wares away in the bread box and pantry and pie safe.
“Why dangle Nayana before him? Will he not go back to Kali? He only ever had eyes for her.”
Mayuri pursed her lips. “It is not for you to ask such questions, and do not think I do not notice your interest. He will not be yours, no matter how much you might wish it. Perhaps, once, you might have…” She finally looked her directly in the eye, so quickly and intently that it took Deena’s breath. “But not when so disfigured. You cannot think a nobleman will want a girl with no beauty. He will sign a contract with Nayana, once he has convinced himself he will not burn in Hell for it. You have a good business in your bakery and ought to be grateful you needn’t earn your living on your back.”
Be grateful that after ten years of tawaif training, more education in more subjects than most men, her first protector had rendered her unfit for her occupation in a fit of temper? She eyed the long knife scar on Mayuri’s cheek, which had been left by the hand of Ramraja himself, when she was the emperor’s concubine. It would be unwise to mention the long line of lovers, both male and female, that Mayuri enticed into her own bed, even marred in punishment for gross insolence to a king.
Mayuri’s daily pastry orders from the Masala Rajah accounted for a goodly portion of Deena’s income, and most of the rest of her customers had started as referrals from Pranjal to other bordellos around London. Mayuri had done well by Deena, in more ways than could be counted. Most notably, by encouraging her talent in the kitchen while she trained as a tawaif, then reminding her she had skills she could fall back on in the absence of a protector.
Deena had not been turned out with nothing when her face had been marred, as she might have been from any other whorehouse in London. Rather, Mayuri had negotiated a large payment from her attacker, enough to set her up in business, then spent a year making sure Deena retained enough custom to remain afloat, both financially and emotionally.
“I only wished… I thought to offer my thanks to him for his kind deeds on my behalf so many years ago.”
“Ask the gods to bless Lord Coventon in your prayers, and leave him alone.”
Mayuri was right. She would do better to banish thoughts of the handsome, kind Marquess of Coventon, who had, when he was still the Viscount Fitzmarten, thrown his influence behind Mayuri when she demanded Lord Albemarle pay for the loss of Deena’s livelihood.
Lord Coventon could choose any tawaif he wanted; it certainly wouldn’t be a broken one, and Deena was much happier not living at a nobleman’s whim. She was proud to have stood on her own two feet, built a life of which her son could be proud—or at least unashamed—rather than giving into despair or settling for a short half-life in the kind of brothel that might serve up a deformed whore. But still, Lord Fitzmarten had been a very handsome young man. He might have aged poorly, of course, but that needn’t stop Deena imagining the Fitz she remembered taking her as a lover, rather than buying a more compliant tawaif to cater to his every desire.
Although she knew he had always favored her cooking, she also knew he had no idea who had made his meals, nor would he ever take it into his head to ask. Nayana would be perfect for him—beautiful and malleable and would never open her mouth to question him. All things Deena could never promise again. And Nayana was an awful cook, so Deena needn’t feel entirely outclassed.
“You are wise, Mayuri, and perfectly right, of course.”
Mayuri shook her finger at Deena in the manner of an angry schoolteacher. “See that you remember it.”
What was he thinking, coming here again? Pretending he could find some semblance of the happiness that he’d had with Kali? When the girl came back, he would tell her to leave. The idea of a tawaif in his bed opened a decade-old wound, flooding him with the anger and pain and guilt again, as though he had just set Kali aside today.
Mayuri was smart; this girl didn’t look anything like Kali. Her skin tone was lighter, and Kali’s face was long, where the new girl’s was round. Her hair had a wave to it that Kali’s did not, and just the slightest tinge of auburn in the shadows of black. Both women were, of course, still devastatingly beautiful, like anyone Mayuri would offer him. She was older than Kali had been, but so was he now; a callow, shallow doll held not an ounce of appeal. She was certainly no virgin, if she had been sent, dressed like that, into a room alone with him. A dozen years ago, before he had met Kali, she would have been undressed faster than the blanket had flown across the room to cover her.
He stumbled to the table and sat, pouring another glass of feni. He really should slow down, or he would be floored by the time she returned.
Some time later—it might have been minutes or hours—he lifted his forehead from his arm on the table at the sound of a soft knock on the door. He shook his head slightly, and the room quavered in a faintly different rhythm.
Nayana had returned, not dressed like a scullery maid, but as good as, in the dull, grey uniform dress of Mayuri’s tawaif-girls-in-training, whose beauty was muted by design, until Mayuri chose to show one to advantage and place her with a gentleman. He had memories of seeing Kali so attired in the halls of the Masala Rajah while she was still a student there, but the thoughts were not particularly licentious. His fantasies of Kali hadn’t turned lecherous until the first time he had seen her dance.
Nayana had brought a rolling cart with her, with three shelves of covered dishes, a veritable feast from Pranjal’s kitchen. The scent of spice rising in the air woke his appetite, so rather than ask her to leave, as he had intended, he watched in silence as she set out dish after dish, then made up a plate for him.
“You were lucky tonight; my lord; native fare was also requested by another gentleman, who will attend with some of his former compatriots from the army.”
Tandoori prawns with green chutney and raita, spicy stuffed aubergines, cabbage and red pepper bhaji, lamb pasanda, grilled papadoms, and modak. Oh, how he had missed modak. This was food that, other than a special order, Pranjal would only have been cooking for his own dinner and Mayuri’s.
“An excellent feast. You must thank the other guests for sharing the meal with us. I am blessed indeed that someone else had the wisdom to make arrangements.”
“A few men ask for this sort of thing. They all lived many years there. Did you?”
“No. No, I wasn’t allowed.” When she leaned in to hand him his plate, staying arm’s length away, he said, clearing his throat, “You are… very gracious. I was a boor, I’m afraid. I am humbled by your forbearance. An unlikely excuse for an Englishman, I know, but it has been an emotional wreck of a day.”
“I wish only to please you, my lord.” She dropped her eyes, but rather than implying modesty, he followed her gaze to the fall of his breeches.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the memoires the simple phrase wrought. He had always hated the way Mayuri’s tawaif girls spoke by rote, though he was sure it added value for a certain type of man.
“Would you prefer I leave, my lord?”
He took a deep breath, and when he released it, his whole body shuddered. Mayuri knew him better than anyone in the world what kind of woman to choose for him to pass an evening with. He would trust her.
“No. No, you may as well eat.”
She took a seat at the opposite end of the table, out of his reach, almost hidden behind a centerpiece, and quietly took up her fork.
“Your name is Nan?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Is it really?”
She looked up sharply. “Your Lordship?”
“Or is that the name Mayuri tells you to use with Englishmen?” He shrugged and raised a brow.
“Nayana Patel, my lord.”
“What a beautiful name. Much nicer than Nan. Nayana it is, then, and I hope you will call me…” What did he hope she would call him? “Coventon. You may call me Coventon.”
He tucked into his meal with the precise motions of a man trying not to let anyone see he was too far into his cups for comfort.
“What instruments do you play, Nayana?”
“I play the same instruments as Kali, my—” At the stricken look on his face, she stopped, then spoke rapidly to fill the tense silence. “The yaal harp is my especial affinity. I can play for you, if you please.”
“No, not now, but thank you.”
The table fell silent again, and he did not make the effort to revive the discussion. Eventually, after they had both finished eating, when she rose to serve him a glass of brandy, he said, “I thank you for the companionship, Nayana, but I think I shall retire now. If you would be so kind as to take the dishes when you go?”
A week later
Deena adjusted the stack of boxes in her arms, heaving it from the back of the wagon, telling her groom, a half-Indian urchin she had rescued from the workhouse, to take the wagon and horses and make the four additional deliveries on their route, then return for her.
“I can fetch and carry for you, Mrs. Karan. You wait here.”
“I’ll be grateful to have you finish the route,” she said, firmly, shifting the burden again. “Go on.”
She looked up reflexively to check for movement behind the curtains of Mayuri’s rooms, not that there would be any warning if Mayuri came upon her in this escapade. The fury would be swift and tremendous, and might happen anytime from right now until she met her worker with the wagon again in an hour.
She strolled, with all the confidence in the world, around to the back of the house. Pranjal let her into the kitchen, taking the boxes from her and setting them onto the counter.
“I’ve not had the midday meal yet, Pranjal, and I wish to speak of Mayuri’s changes in your weekly order. Sit, have a pastry with me.” She opened the box and took out two balushahis, procuring plates from a shelf as though she still lived and worked in this kitchen. She poured water for chai from the cistern Pranjal kept near the fireplace
Pranjal allowed himself to be goaded to a seat; she had timed her visit well, for the lull between the girls breaking their fast midafternoon, and preparing for the gentlemen to start arriving near suppertime. Still, he grumbled, “Acting like a man, coming into my kitchen and telling me what to do.”
“I would have made a poor tawaif, in hindsight, do you not think?”
Pranjal patted her hand lightly. “You would have made an excellent chef when I retire.” He touched her cheek. “And burns do not matter so much in a cook; they might be seen as proof one knows one’s business.”
She choked up a bit, so focused on the brewing of the tea, finally pouring out for both of them, by which time, she had collected herself.
Like an elephant stepping through a rose garden, she started, “How is Lord Coventon?”
Pranjal nodded absently. “He has been in the gold room since the last time you made the delivery.”
“He is still living here? After a sennight?”
“He is not staying in his Mayfair mansion, and there is some question as to his future residence. But he is sleeping in his bed upstairs alone.” Pranjal chucked her under the chin with a worried scowl. “You must not think you will entice Lord Coventon. You have a good business. You do not have to give your body to noblemen for coin. Leave Lord Coventon alone. Mayuri wants him for Nayana.”
Her cheeks burned, as did her eyes, mortified tears welling up. “I do not hope to sell myself… I only wished to… I know it was he who forced Lord Albemarle to offer me a settlement. I thought I would just… thank him… Surely, it is right to offer my appreciation for him taking up for me and retaining a solicitor?”
“Do not be a foolish girl, Deena. Not when you have grown to be such a smart, sensible woman. Mayuri will not keep a baker who forces her presence on the noble guests, and whatever fantasy you spin is destined to break your heart. Lord Coventon did a favor for Mayuri, for a girl he could not identify now if she were standing before him. Do not imagine he is a knight on a horse, to save you from kitchen labor.”
She pushed at Pranjal, laughing sardonically. “Rescue me? From a kitchen? One might have to drag me screaming from the larder. If you must rescue me, best it be from the dance floor, ere I make a perfect fool of myself.”
“And you propose to turn his thoughts from the great Kali Matai? You? A girl with two left feet?”
At the mention of her greatest failing as a tawaif, she withdrew a bit into herself, letting Pranjal change the subject, telling her the weekly gossip of the house, none of which held any interest, as it might have a day before .After she finished her cup of tea, she said, “You are right, of course. You are wise.”
Without missing the leap she had taken back into a conversation of a half-hour before, he said, “Be grateful for what you have, Deena.”
Ten minutes later, as she dried the tea cups and plates they had used, the kitchen door swung open and everyone in the room—Pranjal, his assistant, two scullery drudges, a footman, and a nobleman’s groom who had been sent inside for a meal—all bowed and curtsied as though the king had come to call.
“Pranjal, I only hoped to convince you to make—”
Lord Coventon stopped at the sight of her, his mouth fallen open, but he didn’t turn away, nor cringe at the sight of her ravaged face. It took only a moment before a smile began to stretch across his lips, his gaze tinged with compassion, but not pity.
“It’s you. Deena Karan. My God, it has been… ten years? Twelve?” He reached up to touch her face but stopped short, as though afraid he would hurt her. “I always wondered…”
Her mouth mirrored his, until she realized that meant her jaw was flapping idiotically, and she ruthlessly composed herself. He followed suit, as though he had only been awaiting her signal.
She suddenly realized she had made no offer of obeisance, and no one else had risen from their bows, because the two of them had not acknowledged anyone else from the moment they set eyes on one another. She dropped into a curtsey, and it was enough to bring them both back to a sense of the world around them.
He motioned for her to rise. “Are you well, Deena? I always assumed you were, for I told Mayuri to inform me otherwise, but I am ashamed to say I have not asked recently. Have you done well for yourself with the bakery?”
“My lord…” She found herself tongue-tied. It had been many, many years since she had used her training in seducing men, and this was a man she had no chance of seducing, even if she were as smooth as Kali Matai. “I am surprised you remember.”
“I could never forget. It was the first time I saw the harder side of the Masala Rajah, and the first time in my life I was asked to choose honor over the lies of a nobleman.”
“I… I cannot say what my life would have been had you not, my lord. I wish to… I should have thanked you, all those years ago.”
Her eyes stayed on the floor, not out of the habitual subservience she had been taught for so many years in this very house, but because she wasn’t sure she could stand him looking at her burns any more closely.
“It was nothing at all. A small matter.” With a slight pause and a small quaver in his voice, he said, “Will you take tea with me?”
He looked around, as though he should ask someone’s permission, so she nodded and said, “I can spare a few minutes for tea.” She indicated the kitchen table, but after a word with Pranjal, he took her elbow and guided her into the housekeeper’s sitting room, off the kitchen.
She took a seat in a rocking chair, pushing it back and forth with her foot. Studiously staring away from him, she looked on helplessly as Pranjal arranged tea for them, in relative privacy a few steps from the noise and chaos of cooking for at least twenty picky nobleman and three times as many people there to serve them. As he left the cups, Pranjal kicked her foot, and she glared at him when he pointedly left the door open.
“Tell me, have you made something of yourself, as Mayuri predicted you would?” Lord Coventon began.
“Er… I… I have a bakery.” He knows you have a bakery. He arranged for you to own it.
He grinned a bit wryly, as if he were used to setting women speechless and stupid, and followed up by asking, “And you are comfortable enough? You feel… secure in things?”
“Yes, my lord. I have enough things.” Could she sound any more dimwitted? She swallowed hard. “I do not live in the fashion of a tawaif, Your Lordship, but I do well enough for myself. I own my shop, as you know, and my house, and I support myself and my son and five workers.”
“You do? That is excellent! What an outstanding day, when one finds an investment has paid out so handsomely.”
She straightened a bit and found herself looking into his eyes, rather mesmerized by the sparkle of triumph that shared pride in the business she had built—with his help, of course, and others’, but also with thousands of hours of plain, hard work, in a life that was also difficult for many other reasons.
Breaking the gaze, she crossed to the box of baked goods half-unpacked on the work table. Taking two dumplings from the box, she plated them and poured him tea. He took one look at the pastry and picked it up in gentle fingers, a puzzled look on his face that he didn’t choose to explain.
Finally, he asked, “Madok. Yours?”
“Yes. There is not much call for it in a good English bakery, but it seems Mayuri knows your preferences.”
He snickered. “I am sure they have been recorded in her books for twenty years or more.” Even with the laugh, though, his brow remained furrowed as he contemplated the treat.
When he opened his lips to take a bite, she watched the movements of his lips and his tongue as though he would sup on the pads of her fingertips next, perhaps followed by her mouth and the curve of her throat. She had long since resigned herself that no man would ever desire her again; it was torturous to suddenly want one, and her body’s irrational choice so completely unattainable.
He closed his eyes and rolled the sweet around on his tongue. “You made these for Kali’s house, did you not?”
She shook herself from the dangerous reverie. “Yes, my lord. She makes a point to patronize my shop, even now. And I was the cook for all of your dinner parties.”
His eyes snapped open. “You were? Why did no one ever tell me that?”
She just stared at him, unblinking.
“Right. No need to disturb me with something so trivial. Will you…” he trailed off, but with a swallow, said, “Will you dine with me tomorrow evening?”
She pushed her chair back a few inches. Had she misheard him?
She looked around to see if anyone had else had heard what might have been an auditory illusion, but the kitchen just outside the door was in full swing preparing for the evening’s business to begin. No one was paying them any attention.
“I mean… you aren’t still one of Mayuri’s… I understand I cannot…”
He actually wanted to share a meal with her? Why, by the name of everything holy?
“I cannot be ordered from Mayuri’s menu like every other woman you meet in these halls. ‘Tis true, my lord, and I am jealous of my independence.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Indeed?” His knee shook. “Then I am doubly desirous of your company.”
“It is only… I do not usually make plans in the evenings.”
“Surely, you can make an exception. I am not venturing out much at present, but I daresay Mayuri would allow us a small nook somewhere to break bread.”
She should not think of accepting. Mayuri would be furious. Pranjal would lecture her for days. Nayana would be inconsolable.
Deena would regret it forevermore if she declined.
Before she could stop her habitual sharp tongue, she said, “Not a tray in your bedchamber, then, my lord?” She could kick herself for it. He had been so kind and all things mannerly, when he did not have to expend such attention on a deformed, half-caste cook who could not keep her opinions to herself. But perhaps, if she offended him, she would not have to betray her friend.
His neck stiffened and he said, “Let us not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? Will you dine with me tomorrow night in the yellow dining room on the third floor, say around six o’clock? Do you not retire early? I had understood bakers begin work long before cock’s crow. I can have food brought in, if you’d like a night without cooking, or ask Pranjal to make anything you’d like.”
His every mannerism was enticing, from the consideration of her preferences to the way a lock of hair fell across his forehead when he tilted his head.
“I would not ask Pranjal to cook for me.” She glanced over to see Pranjal eyeing them. She turned away so he wouldn’t see her blush.
“Then I will send a note to Fortnum and Mason. Will you trust me to order something pleasing?”
“Of course, but… my lord, I cannot have dinner with you here. Not anywhere.” In her confusion, she blurted, “You are intended for Naya—” She clapped her hand over her mouth, but not before the damage was done.
His hand stopped on its way to comb through his curly locks again, and he raised one brow. “I assure you, I am intended for no one, least of all Nayana.”
“I did not mean…” Her face was burning.
“Mayuri’s plans for my next contract notwithstanding, I have spent the past days playing piquet with other men who are not in the mood for female company. Tomorrow, however, I will have dinner with a charming woman, if she will have me.”
Deena burst out laughing. “My lord, I pray you not make sport of me. I am not charming; I am a kitchen drudge. And you cannot want me.” She waved her hand toward her face. “You cannot want this. You want a tawaif to decorate your bedchamber and pose prettily.”
He crossed the room in an instant. “I beg you not presume to tell me what I want. This,” with great tenderness, he cradled her burned cheek in the palm of his hand, “may be precisely what I want. A soul that knows the depth of suffering, a woman whose fear of speaking her mind has been burned away.” He stroked his other hand through her hair, “A mind agile enough to thrive against the odds in London with skill, determination, and enterprise.”
So close she could feel the heat of him through their clothes, he leaned in and brushed his lips ever so lightly against hers. “You are fascinating, Deena. Will you dine with me?”
With the small bit of breath left in her lungs, she said, “Yes, my lord.”
Chapter 5 coming next week!
A few months later; the day after the final events of La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess.
The earliest morning sunlight through the window bounced off the satin of Deena’s hair as she gathered it to knot at her nape in a messy bun while waiting for the water from the basin to heat, so she could wash. Coventon ran a gentle hand down her shoulder and placed a kiss behind her good ear. The ties at the throat of his shirt wanted knotting, his cravat was draped across one shoulder, and the top buttons of his falls had not yet been fastened.
“Good morning, my sweet,” he crooned. “You are up early.”
“I heard you in the dressing room.” She traced the scars on her face in the looking glass, until he grasped her hand and pulled it away, kissing the fingertips.
“I am sorry to have woken you.”
“I am rising two hours later than usual this day, with no baking to do. You exhausted me last eve, my lord.”
With a smug grin, he commented, “Would that I could leave you weak-kneed again this morning.”
“It is as well Nayana is opening the shop today, and a better idea than I originally credited you, to hire an apprentice so she can learn to manage a business. Even so, Sinha will wake in less than an hour. I must be on my way.”
Tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, he added, “I wish we were not reduced to sneaking about at the Masala Rajah in the small hours. I would like to spend the day in your bed. I would like to meet your son.”
“You know what I…” she trailed off, intentionally reducing the conversation to only today’s concerns. “I have a business to run, Coventon, and you have a floor speech to write and a meeting all afternoon with your estate agent.”
“You are right, of course. I do wish we weren’t creeping about all the time, though. Not least, because I much prefer to dress in the same neighborhood as my valet. I wish you would allow me to buy you a house.”
She turned on the seat of the dressing table to look at him. “I need no house, as I have already bought my own, and I need not become a man’s mistress. You know what I require before I agree to share a home with you.”
He swallowed hard and began fussing with his cravat, tying a Mathematical knot without even gazing in the mirror. “Yes… well… as to that…” He coughed. “I have rather a bit of news… I was going to wait until… but no need, I suppose…”
She raised a brow and tilted her head. “Yes?”
“It’s… Kali… I… I saw her…”
Deena straightened, dropping her hands into her lap, balled in tight fists. “After all this time? You said you thought it unwise.”
“Unwise… yes, well… I have never been wise when it comes to Kali. She was in rather… well… she was in a bit of trouble, and I was able to lend a hand, but it is clear to me, now that I have seen her. We have different lives now than I kept in my mind’s eye all the barren years of my marriage. I care for her welfare, but we no longer suit.”
“She declined you.”
He didn’t confirm or deny it, only slid onto the bench next to her, taking her hand and placing it on his cheek. “There is no chance Kali will ever again be my mistress, and she is not the one whose touch thrills me, in any case.”
Her fingers trembling, she reached up with her other hand and traced his hairline. “Can you mean it?”
“I do, my love.”
Her breath caught. He leaned in and brushed his mouth against hers.
“And there is more.”
She blinked away incipient tears. “How can there be more, when my heart is so full?”
“Genevieve packed her trunks and removed for the country with the baby.” He winced. “She didn’t want to take the children… God forgive her and bless my poor motherless babes. It will be an adjustment, but it cannot be worse than the torture we have been living.”
Her lips turned up slightly. “No wonder you were so ardent last night. You have lost the weight of the world.”
With a gentle kiss against her forehead and a steady hand at the nape of her neck, he said, “I have gained the world, my dear.”
She curled into the hollow of his throat and murmured, “I would like to cook for you tonight, my lord. At my house. If you can make yourself free.”
With a wry grin, he said, “As free as I will ever be, my dear. And evermore at your beck and call.”
Thanks for Reading!
Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.
When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.
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