The Bengal Bridegift
When she awoke the next morning, it took Juno a few moments to regain her bearings; she’d slept heavily through the remainder of the night, and hadn’t yet seen her cabin in the daylight. The memories from the day before came flooding back; she was on the Minerva, getting ready to set sail for England to confront the Nabob, find her bridegift, and presumably thwart Napoleon. She had been abducted, married and widowed in a single day, and had made wonderful love to a wonderful man to top it off, although at the time she had been admittedly a bit crazed. I am not at all steady in a crisis, she conceded—it is a miracle the man wants to take me on.
She smiled at the timbered ceiling because if she’d learned nothing else during that tumultuous day, she’d learned that he truly loved her, and did seek to take her on—indeed, if he had his way, they would be already married. Her concerns that he was only after her mythical bridegift—as were apparently half the men in India—had been laid to rest. It seemed evident he was some sort of agent for the Crown, and did not have a personal stake in the matter, other than a very personal interest in herself, of course. Tentatively, she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of her berth to assess her condition. Her arms ached from hanging onto Jost, and her rope burn still hurt, but other than that, she seemed to be in one piece. Sliding to her feet, she gingerly stretched her aching arms, then reviewed the meager offerings in her wardrobe. A dress had been lost in the Rajah’s palace, and since she had given another to Aditi, she was left with only the one. Perhaps I can request that several yards of material be purchased, she thought; it seemed evident that Jost would not allow her to set foot off the ship, and so she would have to be grateful for whatever she was given. Juno might not be expert in the use of firearms, or in bloody hand-to-hand combat, but at least she could sew.
Reluctantly, she turned her mind to Aditi, who would also need another dress, if she was still to accompany them to England. It was a terrible dilemma for Jost, who wanted to honor his niyama; but the girl had betrayed them in the most heinous way imaginable. If I had never returned, Aditi would have thought it all well-done of her, thought Juno in disbelief; it was incomprehensible to her that one human being could treat another in such a callous fashion. Hard on such a thought, Juno came to the reluctant realization that she could not do unto Aditi what Aditi had done unto her—Sister Marie would be relieved to hear of it.
Shaking out her sole remaining frock, Juno dressed, and made her way above-decks to observe the flurry of activity as final preparations were made to set sail—sailors climbing the ratlines above, or painting the shrouds with tar. Now that it was daylight, the Minerva seemed much larger; the three huge masts sporting furled sails, with sailors clinging to the booms, their legs crossed beneath them as they worked on the rigging. Gazing about her, Juno became aware she was the focus of many a covert glance, and she could feel the color rise in her cheeks. She spied Jost in conversation with the sandy-haired man from the night before, with Horry, who looked up and saw her.
“Juno,” her brother called out. “I came by to check on you earlier, but you were asleep.” Juno could see that he continued contrite, and so she approached the group with a smile. “I’m fully recovered, and more than ready to shake the dust of this place from my sandals.”
But Jost interrupted any further conversation, his smile softening the words. “Juno, you must go below. The men, they must work.”
“Yes—but I wondered if you have decided what is to be done with Aditi.”
The smile disappeared. “Aditi stays in Madras.”
Unsure how to broach her idea in the face of such implacability, Juno lost her nerve, and only nodded. “Yes; I will see you both later, then.”
As she turned, Jost took her elbow to stay her. “Ach, Juno; you wish to speak of Aditi?”
Juno hesitated. “Only if you do not mind—you must do as you think right.”
“Me, I will come.” He turned to give a brief instruction to the other man, and then accompanied her below.
“Who is he?” she asked as they descended to the captain’s cabin. Jost has never told her the sandy-haired man’s name.
“Peyton,” was the only response. Juno gave him a speculative look, but he did not expand on the topic. Another one like Landon, she surmised; answerable to Jost, and given mysterious duties that would not withstand the light of day.
“Did you sleep well?” He slid open the captain’s cabin door.
“I did, did you?”
He cocked his head, his gaze warm upon hers. “Me, I would have slept better if I came back to tell you goodnight.”
She returned his look in equal measure, unable to suppress a thrill of hopeful anticipation. I am shameless, she thought; but surely we cannot be expected to remain celibate all the way to England—that horse has already left the barn. Or opened the barn—I cannot think of the right metaphor, when he looks upon me in such a way.
As she took a seat at the map table, there was a knock on the door, and Landon joined them, slipping in to lean against the wall. Jost said to him, “I sent for you because we speak of Aditi, and what is to be done.” Crossing his arms, Landon nodded.
Jost met Juno’s eyes in all seriousness. “Me, I cannot forget what she did, Juno. Her brother would not want me to.”
“Yes,” Juno agreed. “That is what I thought too, at first—but then I decided I cannot make who she is change who I am.”
Thinking over her words, the two men made no comment, and Juno continued, “You have an obligation, Jost. If she stays here, we know what will become of her. If she sails to England, there’s little enough trouble she can cause on the way.” She paused, because the two men exchanged a glance, obviously thinking this pronouncement naïve. Juno hurried on, “And I can teach her to sew, and at least give her the opportunity to make an honest living. Then--if she continues down the path she is on—well, it would be her choice, and not out of necessity.”
Jost bent his head to consider the table top, the braid falling forward. I would like to see his hair unbound, Juno thought, then tried to pull her thoughts back to the matter at hand.
“You can forget this? Forget what happened to you?” There was a hint of incredulity in Jost’s voice.
“Of course not,” Juno replied in all honesty. “But I am called to forgive.”
Jost was silent, and Juno glanced at Landon, only to see he was watching Jost closely. The Dutchman looked to the other man. “You will answer for her? She must stay out of my sight.”
“I will,” Landon nodded.
“She comes, then.”
Juno sincerely hoped she was not going to regret championing this particular cause. Reminded, she asked him, “Would you mind sending someone to buy fabric for me, before we sail? I can have her start on a dress, as we will both have need of another.”
“Tell me what is needed,” offered Landon. “I will see to it.” There was a pause before he added gruffly, “You have a good heart, miss.”
“She is like her father,” Jost observed.
Thinking this a fine compliment, Juno smiled in appreciation, as Landon nodded to her and then left, presumably to speak to Aditi. Watching him go, Juno turned to Jost. “Why would Landon take on such a task? It does not seem in keeping.”
The Dutchman grimaced and leaned back in his chair. “Me, I am afraid to tell you.”
Juno laughed and raised her brows. “Oh? Is he being punished, poor man?”
“No—if she behaves, he will marry her.”
Agog, Juno stared at him, completely shocked. “Truly?”
He nodded, amused by her reaction. “Truly.”
After staring at him in utter dismay for a moment, she observed in bewilderment, “He may as well take a viper to his bosom.”
Jost cocked his head, still smiling. “I thought Aditi, she was the crocodile.”
“She is both,” Juno pronounced with some severity.
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Speaking the English—it is very confusing.”
But Juno would not be distracted. “Jost—why on earth would Landon be mad enough to marry Aditi?”
Jost met her eye in amusement, and she had to smile, and shake her head. “That is not enough—surely—upon which to base a marriage.”
He spread his hands in mock-apology. “The men, they like the bed sport, Juno.”
“I am aware of this—” she assured him, “—being as how I am ruined.”
Throwing back his head, he laughed loudly, and then reached across the table to grasp her hand. “No longer—me, I will marry you this day.”
Suddenly breathless, Juno stared at him. “Today?”
“Yes. I will have the chaplain from the fort come this afternoon—if you agree?”
Delighted, she said, “I do,” and wished she had sent Landon to find a better nightdress, too.