22 January 2009

Excerpt Thursday: Jennifer Mueller

Thursdays on Unusual Historicals mean excerpts! Here's one from Jennifer Mueller, whose well-reviewed Kenyan-set novella SAMBURU HILLS has just been reissued by Red Rose Publishing. Here's the blurb:

***

When Celeste Reed steps off the boat in the fledgling colony of Kenya, East Africa she finds out the man that she was to marry doesn't even care to get to know her let alone listen to a word she says. Life is miserable and then he has the nerve to die leaving her to run an estate without any money. It seems he spent all he had to impress the colony and she was just part of the package. Africa is unforgiving to the weak, but it can be the people that you least expect that make it. And then there's Edward.
***

"What is this?" Celeste asked, pointing to a root-like thing at a seller's stand just outside the hotel as she waited for Nicholas.

"Muhogo," the man announced.

That wasn't working. Celeste only shook her head. She wanted to explore, but she knew she would get hopelessly lost in the maze of buildings.

"Una penda tui?" the man asked.

Celeste shook her head, not understanding a word he said.

"Ku nywa," he said and pulled out a wicked looking knife and lopped the top off a coconut to hand over.

Inside she could see liquid and he pantomimed drinking. It was the most exotic thing she had ever tasted. The man smiled back at her. "Una panda?"

Celeste nodded, guessing he asked if she liked it.

"Get your things." Nicholas called as he pulled up in a rickshaw. "The train leaves in an hour."

"What is this, Nicholas?"

He looked at the root faintly. "Hell if I know. You think I'd taste something like that?"

It was a thirty-six hour train ride to Nairobi over rough tracks filled with dust and ash. Leaving the coast, the palm trees quickly disappeared and she stared out the window at the landscape so different from the home she had left behind--huge expanses of grass as far as the eye could see, only a solitary flat-topped acacia tree breaking up the bareness. Once, she caught sight of a lone warrior painted red with ochre walking along the tracks, nothing in miles to show where he came from. The thoughts occupying her mind were why Nicholas was going to marry the gamekeepers' daughter from his family's estate instead of someone else. He was a lord by courtesy, after all. Then a herd of zebra, so large it made the ground shake, passed by and the thoughts of Nicholas's motives vanished.

***

Nairobi, three hundred-odd miles away, was a town filled with color and, more noticeably, people. After the train ride, seeing no one for hours was the most telling of all. Nairobi was a hodgepodge town filled with shanties, bazaars, and stinking swamps. A former camp for the railroad construction, proper English colonial buildings now poked out glaringly. English buildings, with women wearing large hoops all around their heads and no shirts, selling vegetables out front as Indian couples with turbans and saris walked stately by.

"It's race week," Nicholas informed her over the din. "Everyone who is anyone has come for the week. You can meet your future friends. With all of the ranches being so spread out, they fit a year's worth of socializing into one week. I hope you brought better clothes than those."

Celeste could only stare at him. He knew she had nothing; how could he ask such a thing?

"Nick!" The voice made her spin, a woman's voice. The way she hung on his neck was far more friendly a greeting than required. "And who is this?" the woman asked, finally noticing Celeste standing there.

"My fiancée." He made no motion even to introduce them. "Pretty, isn't she?" Nicholas waved to a well-dressed man down the street and left to greet him.

Celeste was left standing alone in the middle of the street. The tears threatened to fall down her cheeks, but Celeste fought them back. She didn't know this man. He wasn't in love with her. He didn't even seem to care to get to know her. She was an ornament, nothing more. One who had to fling herself out of the way to escape being run over by a donkey. She felt as much in common with him as she did with the exotic frangipani, bougainvillea, jacaranda, Nandi flame, and mimosa that grew around the houses and as out of place as the transplanted English varieties.

An hour later, she was married. No one she knew was there. Nicholas was clapped on the back numerous times but little was said to her.

"How did you meet Nicholas, dear?" a woman asked the first to speak to her since she arrived at the club. Well dressed in as fine a gown as she had seen Nicholas's mother wearing, the woman was obviously someone of importance.

"I . . ." Nicholas's hand closed around Celeste's elbow tightly. Too tightly for her comfort.

A smile as oily as he could produce filled his face. "Janet was looking for you but find me later. You will have to tell me of all that's happened since I left India."

The older woman smiled slyly. "Of course, Nicholas," she answered before walking off.

"No one needs to know you were a damned maid," he hissed in her ear.

"I wasn't the maid," Celeste snapped.

Nicholas leveled his gray eyes at her. "If you can't at least pretend you have anything to say then just keep your mouth shut. You were in service. I would imagine you know all the gossip to spread. They'll love that."

Celeste felt the tears forming again. "I was your gamekeeper's daughter. I didn't polish your father's boots." If only she wasn't halfway around the world without a penny to her name, she would walk out on him and his insults, as much as it would break her father's heart. What choice did she have now? She was married and poor.

Nicholas started shaking as someone pounded him on the back. "Nick, I can't believe you haven't taken this vision to your room for her wedding night. What a beautiful woman you've married. Good thing you got the vows out of the way before anyone could steal her away."

Nicholas held his arm out for her, but the look in his eyes showed not one twinkle that he even looked forward to the wedding night.

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