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DARK ROAD TO DARJEELING
by Deanna Raybourn

Genre: Mystery, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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To his credit, Brisbane did not even seem surprised to see them when they appeared in the dining room and settled themselves at our table without ceremony. I sighed and turned away from the view. A full moon hung over old Cairo, silvering the minarets that pierced the skyline and casting a gentle glow over the city. It was impossibly romantic—or it had been until Portia and Plum arrived.

“I see you are working on the fish course. No chance of soup then?” Portia asked, helping herself to a bread roll. 

I resisted the urge to stab her hand with my fork. I looked to Brisbane, imperturbable and impeccable in his evening clothes of starkest black, and quickly looked away. Even after almost a year of marriage, a feeling of shyness sometimes took me by surprise when I looked at him unawares—a feyness, the Scots would call it, a sense that we had both of us tempted the fates with too much happiness together.

Brisbane summoned the waiter and ordered the full set menu for Portia and for Plum who had thrown himself into a chair and adopted a scowl. I glanced about the dining room, not at all surprised to find our party had become the subject not just of surreptitious glances but of outright curiosity. We Marches tended to have that effect when we appeared en masse. No doubt some of the guests recognised us—Marches have never been shy of publicity and our eccentricities were well-catalogued by both the press and society-watchers—but I suspected the rest were merely intrigued by my siblings’ sartorial elegance. Portia, a beautiful woman with excellent carriage, always dressed cap-a-pie in a single hue, and had elected to arrive wearing a striking shade of orange, while Plum, whose ensemble is never complete without some touch of purest whimsy, was sporting a waistcoat embroidered with poppies and a cap of violet velvet. My own scarlet evening gown, which had seemed so daring and elegant a moment before, now felt positively demure.

“Why are you here?” I asked the pair of them bluntly. Brisbane had settled back in his chair with the same expression of studied amusement he often wore when confronted with my family. He and Portia enjoyed an excellent relationship built upon genuine, if cautious, affection, but none of my brothers had especially warmed to my husband. Plum in particular could be quite nasty when provoked.

Portia put aside the menu she had been studying and fixed me with a serious look. “We are bound for India, and I want you to come with us, both of you,” she added, hastily collecting Brisbane with her glance.

“India! What on earth--” I broke off. “It’s Jane, isn’t it?” Portia’s former lover had abandoned her the previous spring after several years of comfortably settled domesticity. It had been a blow to Portia, not least because Jane had chosen to marry, explaining that she longed for children of her own and a more conventional life than the one they had led together in London. She had gone to India with her new husband, and we had heard nothing from her since. I had worried for Portia for months afterward. She had grown thinner, her lustrous complexion dimmed. Now she seemed almost brittle, her mannerisms darting and quick as a hummingbird’s. 

“It is Jane,” she acknowledged. “I’ve had a letter. She is a widow.”

I took a sip of wine, surprised to find it tasted sour upon my tongue. “Poor Jane! She must be grieved to have lost her husband so quickly after their marriage.”

Portia said nothing for a moment, but bit at her lip. “She is in some sort of trouble,” Brisbane said quietly. 

Portia threw him a startled glance. “Not really, unless you consider impending motherhood to be trouble. She is expecting a child, and rather soon, as it happens. She has not had an easy time of it. She is lonely and she has asked me to come.”

Brisbane’s black eyes sharpened. “Is that all?”

The waiter interrupted, bringing soup for Portia and Plum and refilling wine glasses. We waited until he had bustled off to resume our discussion.

“There might be a bit of difficulty with his family,” Portia replied, her jaw set. I knew that look well. It was the one she always wore when she tilted at windmills. Portia had a very old-fashioned and determined sense of justice. If she were a man, one would have called it chivalry. 

“If the estate is entailed in the conventional manner, her expectations would upset the inheritance,” Brisbane guessed. “If she produces a girl, the estate would go to her husband’s nearest male relation, but if she bears a son, the child would inherit and until he is old enough to take control, Jane is queen of the castle.”

“That is it precisely,” Portia averred. Her face took on a mulish cast. “Bloody nonsense. A girl could manage that tea plantation as well as any boy. One only has to look at how well Julia and I have managed the estates we inherited from our husbands to see it.”

I bristled. I did not like to be reminded of my first husband. His death had left me with quite a generous financial settlement and had been the cause of my meeting Brisbane, but the marriage had not been altogether happy. His was a ghost I preferred not to raise.

“How is it that she does not already know the disposition of the estate?” Brisbane asked. “Oughtn’t there to have been a reading of the will when her husband died?”

Portia shrugged. “The estate is relatively new, only established by her husband’s grandfather. As the estate passed directly from the grandfather to Jane’s husband, no one thought to look into the particulars. Now that her husband has died, matters are a little murky at present, at least in Jane’s mind. The relevant paperwork is somewhere in Darjeeling or Calcutta and Jane doesn’t like to ask directly. She thinks it might seem grasping, and she seems to think the matter will sort itself out when she has the child.”

I turned to Portia. “I thought her husband was some sort of wastrel who went to India to make his fortune, but you say he has inherited it. Is the family a good one?”

Angry colour touched Portia’s cheeks. “It seems she wanted to spare me any further hurt when she wrote to tell me of her marriage. She neglected to mention that the fellow was Freddie Cavendish.”

I gasped and Brisbane arched a thick black brow interrogatively in my direction. “Freddie Cavendish?”

“A distant—very distant--cousin on our mother’s side. The Cavendishes settled in India ages ago. I believe Mother corresponded with them for some time, and when Freddie came to England to school, he made a point of calling upon Father.”

Plum glanced up from his wine. “Father smelled him for a bounder the moment he crossed the threshold. Once Freddie realised he would get nothing from him, he did not come again. It was something of a scandal when he finished school and refused to return to his family in India. Made a name for himself at the gaming tables,” he added with a touch of malice. Brisbane had been known to take a turn at the tables when his funds were low, usually to the misfortune of his fellow gamblers. My husband was uncommonly lucky at cards.

I hurried to divert any brewing quarrel. “How ever did Jane meet him? He would have left school at least a decade ago.”

“Fifteen years,” Portia corrected. “I used to invite him to dinner from time to time. He could be quite diverting if he was in the proper mood. But I lost touch with him some years back. I presumed he had returned to India until I met him in the street one day. I remember I was giving a supper that evening and I needed to make the numbers, so I invited him. I thought a nice, cosy chat would be just the thing, but a thousand details went wrong that evening, and I had to ask Jane to entertain him for me. They met again a few months later when she went to stay in Portsmouth with her sister. Freddie was a friend to her brother-in-law and they were often together. Within a fortnight they were married and bound for India.”

I cudgeled up whatever details I could recall. “I seem to remember him as quite a handsome boy, with a forelock of dark red hair that always spilled over his brow and loads of charm.”

“As a man grown he was just the same. He could have charmed the garters off the queen’s knees,” Portia added bitterly. “He ended up terribly in debt and when his grandfather fell ill in India, he thought he would go back and take up residence at the tea plantation and make a go of things.”

We fell silent then, and I glanced at Plum. “And how did you come to attach yourself to this expedition?” I asked lightly.

“Attach myself?” His handsome face settled into sulkiness. “Surely you do not imagine I did this willingly? It was Father, of course. He could not let Portia travel out to India alone, so he recalled me from Ireland and ordered me to pack up my sola topee and here I am,” he finished bitterly. He waved the waiter over to refill his wineglass and I made a mental note to keep a keen eye upon his drinking. As I had often observed, a bored Plum was a dangerous Plum, but a drunken one would be even worse.

I returned my attention to my sister. “If Father wanted you to have an escort so badly, why didn’t he come himself? He is always rabbiting on about wanting to travel to exotic places.”

Portia pulled a face. “He would have but he was too busy quarrelling with his hermit.”

I blinked at her and Brisbane snorted, covering it quickly with a cough. “His what?”