Lakshmi’s limbs had gone numb. She couldn’t believe her brother had spent so much time discussing business when he knew she was sitting here waiting for him to ask the Englishman about what he’d said the other day. Tentatively, she moved her leg trying to get the feeling back into it. Painful tingling shot through her limb. She clamped her mouth shut to keep from crying out. She couldn’t give herself away now, not after waiting so patiently.
“Of course,” the Englishman said.
Lord Huntley, Lakshmi reminded herself. His name was Lord Huntley. It seemed so intimate to think of him by his name.
“Dada! Dada, your father wishes to speak with you,” a servant said in Bengali, rushing up to her brother.
“Oh. Uh…” Her brother turned to Lord Huntley. “I am so sorry.”
Ganesh’s eyes flicked up to the branch where Lakshmi sat. No, you idiot, you’re going to give me away! She flattened herself even further along the branch, praying that the Englishman didn’t look up too.
“Yes, of course. Tell him I will be right with him,” her brother instructed the servant.
The man bowed slightly and then went running back to the house.
“I am so sorry. My father is calling for me. I…um…” her brother tried to explain.
“No, no. Not a problem. We’ll talk again another day,” the Englishman said, giving Ganesh a pat on the back. “You go to your father. And if you don’t mind, I’ll just stay here for a few minutes and smoke. It’s such a lovely garden.”
“Not at all. Thank you for understanding.” Her brother gave him a small bow, but Lakshmi could see worry in his eyes when they flicked up to her again.
It was all right. She would just stay here until the Englishman left. She didn’t mind, actually. He was quite nice to look at, even from above.
As her brother walked away, the Englishman took a cheroot out of his coat and rolled it between his fingers. He seemed to be waiting for something, but Lakshmi couldn’t tell what.
After a minute, he looked back toward the house and then said quite clearly, “It’s all right. He’s gone. You can come down now.”
Lakshmi froze. Her blood ran cold. Her breathing stopped. Her heart was the only thing that didn’t stop; instead, it began beating much faster and louder. She wondered if he could hear it.
He looked up. It took him only a moment to find her among the branches of the tree. When he did, he smiled at her, warm and inviting.
Lakshmi ducked her head. She shouldn’t look. He shouldn’t look at her!
“Come on now,” he coaxed, as if she were a frightened animal. “I don’t bite, you know.” He paused then gave a rueful laugh. “Do you understand English? I’m afraid I don’t speak a word of Bengali.”
“You should not see me,” Lakshmi whispered just loud enough for him to hear. Her heart had somehow moved up into her throat, she was sure of it.
“Ah! You do speak English!”
“You must not see me.”
“But I do.” He paused and then thought about it for a moment. “I could feel you, you know. From the moment I walked into the garden, I could feel you there.” He laughed again, shaking his head at his own fancy. Giving a shrug, he said, “I don’t know how that is, honestly. But it would be much nicer if you came down, so that I didn’t have to bend my neck in this way.”
Could she? Dare she? Oh, how she wanted to. She wanted to speak to this Englishman. She had said so just the other day, hadn’t she?
And now that she had the opportunity, she was scared. Terrified.
She chastised herself silently. Really! She had been given an opportunity and if she passed it up, she knew she would be furious with herself later. Before she could change her mind again, Lakshmi scooted back toward the tree trunk.
But how was she going to climb down without him seeing her legs? She paused, her fear—and good sense—overcoming her again. There was no way to climb down without her sari up around her knees.
But if she didn’t speak to him now, she would never get the chance. Not ever again!
There was nothing for it. She had to climb down. She could feel her limbs trembling as she began to make her way down the tree. They were still a little numb from not having moved in so long. Thank goodness she had her back to him so she couldn’t see those blue-green eyes watching her.
But then her foot slipped.
Strong hands grabbed her, one hand burning through the thin cotton of her sari, the other scorching her bare skin. His hands fit perfectly into the curve of her waist, as if they were made just for it. His breath was loud in her ear. Slowly, gently, she was placed on the ground. Her left leg started to buckle under her weight, as pain shot through her knee.
He pulled her against him so she wouldn’t fall. “Whoa there.”
“My leg has gone numb,” she whispered, not even daring to look up from the ground.
She could feel his chest rumble with laughter. “You were in that tree a long time.”
She gave a nod but then pushed herself away, putting weight on her leg. This time it held. “It is better now, thank you.”
In one quick move, she tore the end of her sari from where it was tucked around her waist and pulled the edge of it up and over her head as a veil. She forced herself to keep her eyes firmly on the ground, staring not at the beautiful eyes but at his boots.
He cleared his throat. “How do you know English?”
She gave his boots a little smile. “I helped my brother to learn. When he studies, he finds it easier to learn if he can teach me what his tutor taught him. And I like to read.”
“Your brother? Ganesh?”
“I see,” he said slowly. He was quiet for a moment, forcing Lakshmi to steal a glance up at him. He was looking at her, maybe trying to see her face through her sari. Finally, he said, “You wanted to ask me some questions, is that right? Your brother was supposed to ask, but he got called away.”
Lakshmi’s eyes flew up to his. How did he know? How did he know that she’d set her brother to ask her questions?
He just laughed. The corners of his eyes crinkled, but they flashed brightly. “I thought so.”
“I… I wanted to ask…”
“Didi!” a voice called out from the house. Thakur! The cook was looking for her, probably wanting instructions on what to make for the day’s meals. This time Lakshmi didn’t even notice her breathing stopped.
If she were caught here in the presence of a man, she would be ruined. She would… Without another thought, she turned.
But he caught her before she could run.
“I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said, his voice low and urgent.
She gave a quick nod before tearing her arm out of his grasp and running for her life.
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