She threw up her hands. “You’re being ridiculous. He was bent on conquering the entire European continent, never mind the cost in…in…”
She swallowed, as her mind raced to a conclusion ahead of her.
“Oh,” she said in mute horror.
He didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Oh,” she repeated, setting a hand over her belly. For a few moments he said nothing at all.
He spoke when she was feeling the height of her stupidity. “The East India Company laid claim to Calcutta more than two centuries ago. You cannot imagine what I have seen. Ten years ago, there was an uprising in the north. You probably have not heard of it.”
He said that without blinking. And he was right. She hadn’t. “Go on,” she muttered.
“Several of the Indian battalions mutinied. Indian killed Indian.” His hands made fists, but his eyes had shifted inward. “My brother was in the army. They called him to help.”
Just those few words, but she could see the grim set of his jaw.
He shook his head and looked away. “I knew people,” he finally said. He gave himself a shake, a firm, hard shake, and those dark eyes looked up at her.
“Which side did your brother fight on?” she asked slowly.
He made an annoyed noise. “I’m here. You have to ask?”
She shook her head.
“It started because the East India Company issued rifle cartridges to the sepoys that had been greased with animal fat. Pork fat, beef fat; whatever they had to hand. Since part of the training required the soldiers to put the cartridge in their mouth…” His hand clenched.
They had talked about this enough that Emily understood what that would mean. She swallowed.
“The English didn’t understand that they were asking for a desecration. They didn’t know why everyone became so furious when the news came out.” He looked up at her. “They didn’t understand why the fighting grew so bad, spreading from province to province. And when they counted the dead, they didn’t include our counts. So no, Miss Fairfield. Napoleon is not so bad.”
She held her breath. “I take it,” Emily finally said, “that you are in favor of home rule for India, if not outright independence.”
He looked so calm, not one muscle in his body twitching. And yet there was that sadness in his eyes. She wanted to wipe it away.
“No. Were you not listening to what I said before? I do not dare favor such a thing.”
“My family is well-to-do,” he said. “It is complicated to explain if you don’t know the system. My eldest brother was an officer in the Indian forces. My second brother is a magistrate. My father is in the civil service, a position of responsibility directly under the commissioner of railways. I am here precisely because my family accepts British rule. How could I talk of rebellion? What would happen to them?”
She shook her head wordlessly.
“Even if they were not, my brother told me about the Sepoy Mutiny. How it started. How it ended. Indian fighting Indian for the British. What do we have to gain?” There was a bitterness in his voice. “So no, I do not dream of home rule. I dream of the things I can achieve, not the ones that are outside my grasp.”
“If I dreamed of home rule, I could accomplish nothing.” His breath came faster. “I’d be too radical to stomach, and in the end it would all come out to the same thing. Violence all over again, and to what point?”
She tried to imagine not being able to even dream of freedom.
He turned away from her. “So don’t talk to me about Napoleon. You cannot possibly understand what he is like.”
For all that Emily had only ventured a few miles from her uncle’s house, she felt her horizons crumbling, as if she’d been pulled inside out. God, how blind she had been.
“This is not a subject for polite conversation.” His tone had evened out. “You have my apologies.”
That fierceness had left his eyes. He smiled evenly, as if nothing had happened. It was wrong, all wrong. A mask of pleasantry.
“No,” she said passionately. “No. Never apologize for that. Never. I don’t know what you dare to do anywhere else in the world, but with me…” She wasn’t even sure why she was so upset. “This is my escape,” she finally said. “The one thing I do that makes the rest of the day worthwhile. It should be yours, too.”
For a long moment, he didn’t say anything. He just looked at her, his emotions hidden behind a mask. “I should tell you that you shouldn’t defy your uncle,” he finally said.
“If there were no civil service, no danger of violence… Tell me, Mr. Bhattacharya, what flag would you hoist?”
He inhaled. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to think about that. I think you are trying to change the subject.”
“I think,” Emily said, “something quite different. Did you really believe me when I said my family was that unconventional? To allow us to wander about for days on end without so much as an introduction?”
“I…” His lips twitched. “Well…”
“You knew. You might not have wanted to know, but you knew. If you don’t think I ought to be sneaking out, why are you here?”
For a long moment, he didn’t say anything. Then, ever so slowly, he reached out and took her hand. Not to guide it to his arm or to steady her over rough footing. He took her hand and caressed it with his thumb, until her fingers unfurled in his. And then—still looking in her eyes—he bowed and kissed her palm.
And that was when Emily realized that without intending it, she’d swum into deep waters.
Temptation, Oliver told himself, was best conquered by avoidance. If one didn’t want to indulge in too many sweets, it was best not to buy them. If one didn’t want to partake of alcohol, one ought not visit a pub. And if one wanted to keep from humiliating a lady…
Well, Oliver figured it was best to keep his distance. He’d managed the trick for three days, and he hoped that tonight’s dinner would prove no different.
Her gowns didn’t improve. There had been the blue and gold affair, perfectly acceptable in coloration, but printed in a pattern that shimmered and pulsed, seeming to grow and shrink before his eyes until Oliver had to look away. There was the Red Gown of Hellfire—as Whitting had called it—moiré silk that did, in fact, call to mind flame.