ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 9

          Jost held Juno tightly, her back against his chest and an arm around her throat, whilst Horry watched with interest from his position seated cross-legged on the aft deck. “Now, what is best?”

     “The eyes,” she responded dutifully, and made a tentative movement with her fingers behind her head, toward Jost’s eyes.

     “Very good.”  Jost was giving Juno a lesson in self-defense, having determined that she was deficient in this area after abducting her from the fort.

     “I don’t know if I could truly gouge out a person’s eyes,” Juno confessed.

     But Jost gently squeezed the arm around her throat, for emphasis. “You must not delay; once he knows you mean to do this he will stop you—so you must blind him before he knows what you mean to do.” 

     “Heavens,” said Juno faintly.

     Horry was skeptical, his chin resting on his hand. “I don’t know, Sir Jost—Juno’s not a fighter.”

     But Jost disagreed with a shake of his head.  “There is a bruise on my leg the size of an egg. Your sister, she is a fighter—she only must learn what is best to do.” Bringing his head forward, he advised her, “You should have gouged my eyes, that night at the fort.”

     “Next time,” Juno promised, and Horry grinned.

     Juno was released and then turned by her shoulders to face the Dutchman. “Now, what is best?”

     “The eyes again?” she guessed, making a gesture toward them. She would hate to do injury to them, though—they were so very attractive, especially when they were intent upon her.

     “No, he will see you and stop you. Take your knee—up hard like this.” Pulling her close, he indicated she was to bring her knee into his groin.

     “Oh,” exclaimed Juno, hot with embarrassment whilst Horry crowed with laughter. “I’d rather gouge the eyes, I think.”

     “You hit him here and he will drop to the ground,” Jost assured her, and looked to Horry for confirmation.

     “I certainly would,” Horry agreed, and Juno didn’t know where to look.

     “You will stay here, and practice with Horry,” directed Jost. “Me, I must go ashore.” They had anchored at the inlet near Kakinada the night before, and Landon had left in the skiff to replenish their provisions—although how this could be done in the dead of night remained unclear; Juno suspected the new provisions had been stolen as opposed to paid for.  She was fast coming to the conclusion, given what she now knew, that Landon’s talents were not necessary constrained to investigating insurance fraud—and neither were Jost’s, for that matter.

     “I will go with you,” Horry announced, his eager gaze on the shoreline.

     “You will stay with your sister.” Jost pulled a pistol from his belt and handed it to him. “Me, I do not expect trouble, but you and Landon are to set sail if anyone tries to approach. I will catch up to you.”

     After he visibly struggled with an urge to protest such a passive role, Horry nodded.

     “You can obey orders?” asked Jost, not moving.

     “Yes—yes, sir.”

     Jost nodded, satisfied. “Can you shoot?”

     “Yes, sir—Papa taught me.”

     Jost raised his brows in approval. “Your father, he was the good shot; I know of only one who was better.”

     Pleased, Horry nonetheless confessed, “I am not as good as him.” 

     “Landon has the command while I am gone.”  He gave Horry a level look, and the boy nodded his agreement, but Jost apparently believed more emphasis was needed, and bent his head to look into the boy’s eyes. “It is important you obey orders, yes?  A ship can only have one captain—even though Juno is your sister, and not Landon’s.”

     “Yes, sir,” Horry affirmed, chastened.

     Jost took hold of the back of Horry’s head and shook it slightly, to show there were no hard feelings. “You have the hot head, I think—you must learn, if you wish to be a captain.”

     “Yes, sir,” Horry repeated with a small smile.

     Satisfied, Jost turned to Juno. “Come, Juno—I will give you a pistol also.”

     Pleased that he was willing to entrust her with a weapon, Juno followed him down the companionway and into the half-galley.  Once there, he swung her out of sight against the bulkhead, lowered his head, and kissed her very thoroughly.

     Completely surprised, she nevertheless responded—after a slight hesitation—by moving her hands over that impressive chest and softening her mouth against his; nearly melting withnew and overwhelming sensations.  It was a heady, heady experience, and it was he who broke away first, whilst she looked up at him in a breathless haze. 

     They gazed at each other for a long moment, and then he said softly, “Me, I could not sleep last night, thinking of the better kiss I must give to you.”

     “That was a better kiss,” she assured him, struggling to recover the strength in her legs.

     “Good.” He leaned in to kiss her again, this time his lips gently tracing hers. “Me, I will practice.”

     “You mustn’t,” she reminded him automatically, and then ruined the effect by rising up on tiptoe so as to allow him to kiss her again. He smelt wonderful; like sea and sun and man.

     “I must go, now. Do not kiss anyone while I am gone.”  

     She nodded, bemused. “Where is my pistol?”

     “I have no pistol for you, lieve,” he explained patiently. “Me, I wanted to kiss you.”

     She laughed and he laughed in return, then laid a hand against her cheek and left. She stayed where she was for a full minute, hoping her color would return to normal before she confronted the others again.  When she went to rejoin Horry, it was to find he had decided to do some more fishing from the stern in the relatively quiet inlet.  At her approach, he glanced up. “It’s not a good time of day for it, but perhaps I can snag a sturgeon or two for supper.”

     Settling down beside him, Juno ruched up her skirts and dangled her legs off the stern to watch as he baited the hook and dropped the line into the water. “Horry, did Papa ever speak to you of a bridegift—or any sort of account set aside for me?”

     “Landon has already gone over this with me.” Horry played with the line between his bare toes then glanced over at her, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “Are you going to need a bridegift, soon?”

     Her color rising, Juno did not dignify the question with a response, but instead related to Horry what she had learned from the men that morning; she felt he had the right to know.  She concluded, “They seem to think the Nabob was behind the plot against your life, and that he was going to seize the bridegift and murder me, also; it appears the bridegift is actually the money from the insurance fraud scheme.”

     Horry had fixed his gaze upon hers during this recital and now issued a low whistle as he turned back to watch the fishing line. “Infamous; Papa always said the Nabob was a curst rum touch.”

     “Did he? Well, it gets worse—Sir Jost seems to think the whole scheme was a means to funnel money to Napoleon.”

     Drawing his brows together, Horry looked to her with an expression of incredulity. “Napoleon’s in exile, Juno—little help the money would be to him.”

     Almost afraid to speak it aloud, Juno revealed, “They think he will attempt an escape soon.”

     Horry stared at her.  “Well, that tears it; Papa definitely would have no part of anything that helped the enemy—no matter how much they paid him.  He must have been trying to stop them; I imagine that is why he was killed.”

     “Why, yes—yes, of course; you are right.” Feeling slightly ashamed, she lowered her gaze to watch the sunlight reflect off the shifting surface of the water. “I should have known; I should have trusted Papa, instead of assuming the worst.”

     Horry was silent for a moment, fingering the fishing line. “It is so hard to believe that he is gone.  I keep expecting him to appear the way he used to—with no warning, and wanting to go fishing.”

     Juno put a hand on his arm and squeezed gently. It was true; Horry had spent more time with him than she, and the loss was more acute for her brother. “I miss him, too.”

     Pensive, Horry continued, “I wish I had something of his—his pistols, or the skiff we took fishing; just to remember him.”

     Juno rubbed his arm in sympathy. “Recall I have his pipe, Horry—it is yours, once the diamonds are delivered.”

     “The diamonds.”  Horry turned to her, reminded.  “You can’t take the diamonds to the Nabob, Juno.”

     “No, of course not—not now that I know what he is.”

     Thinking about this, Horry asked, “If you aren’t going to give them to the Nabob, then what are you going to do with them?” Her brother jerked quickly on the line, hoping to make a snag, but it appeared no curious fish were lurking around the hook.

     Juno had been thinking about this herself. “I don’t know, Horry—I suppose I must turn them over to the authorities.”

     “Could you ask Sir Jost? I think he could be trusted to help—perhaps you should ask him.”

     “He already knows of the diamonds,” she confessed. “He guessed that I had them.”

     The fish forgotten, Horry stared at her in surprise. “However did he guess such a thing?”

     Focusing on the rippling water, Juno realized she had no answer. “I am not certain, but I think he was in Bengal in the first place because he was looking for them.”

     In the time-honored tradition of brothers, Horry teased, “Oh? It seems more like he was looking for you—and he can’t seem to stop, I might add.” 

     As gratifying as this observation was, Juno felt she should disclaim for form’s sake. “Nonsense, Horry—he was Papa’s friend, and so naturally he has an interest in us.”

     Her brother slid her an amused glance. “Well, he doesn’t ask many questions about me, but he asks plenty about you.”

     Betraying her true feelings on the subject, Juno cautioned, “Don’t tell him anything off-putting, for heaven’s sake.”

     With a smile, Horry turned back to his line. “I’m glad you like him; he’s a great gun—he is going to teach me how to throw a knife.”

     Juno thought this an unusual aspiration, and asked in surprise, “How is this? When did he throw a knife?”   There was a small silence, and she could see that Horry debated whether or not to tell her, so in the time-honored tradition of sisters, she pressed him mercilessly. “Horry—confess.”

     “We did have a tight moment during the escape from the fort—I’ve been cautioned not to relate the particulars to you.”

     With an effort, Juno suppressed her alarm. “I see.”

     “He’s a great gun,” Horry repeated as he tugged on the line again. “Papa liked him.” It was clear that for her brother, this was enough. 

     “I imagine they were kindred spirits,” Juno agreed—even though the similarities between the merchant captain and the Barbary pirate were not obvious at first glance. “I wonder how they became acquainted.”

     “He turns the subject when I ask; he says he will tell me when I am older.”

     Juno raised her eyebrows, considering this. “He is rather mysterious.”

     “I’ll bet if you asked him, he’d tell you.” Her brother shot her a look.  “He thinks you are something like.”

     “I am something like,” Juno agreed, teasing.

     Horry laughed and then re-focused his attention on snagging their dinner. They lapsed into companionable silence, the lapping of the water against the hull the only sound.