The Bengal Bridegift
Startled, Juno blinked sleepily in the darkness, feeling Jost’s fingers gently touching her face. She opened her mouth to ask what was amiss, but he touched her lips. “Be very quiet,” he whispered.
As she nodded, he ran his hand gently over her forehead, stroking her hair with his callused fingers. “If you want me to go, I will go.”
“Oh,” she breathed, as the purpose of the visit became clear. She turned her head on the pillow to meet his gaze, although in the darkness she could not see his face very well; he smelled faintly of soap, as though he had recently washed.
“Me, I thought we would be wed tonight.”
“Yes,” she commiserated. “So did I.” Sit up, Juno, she thought—if you don’t sit up, you are lost. She propped herself up on an elbow and sat up, facing him as he crouched beside her berth. From this angle, his face was dimly illuminated by the moonlight that filtered in through the porthole, and his dark, liquid eyes were fixed upon hers. She thought; here is a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve—there is never any doubt as to how he feels at any particular moment.
Almost without conscious volition, she put a hand to his face, and he pressed it to his cheek and turned his head to kiss her palm. “Me, I think of you and I do not sleep.”
“I love you,” she whispered, the words filled with longing. “What are we to do?”
He held her hands in his, and looked up into her face. “To me, we are wed.”
The nuns never explain to you that temptation is so very tempting, Juno thought. Truly, it makes all the difference. “Perhaps once in a while, then,” she suggested, her pulse beginning to accelerate, “—but not every night.” She wasn’t certain why an occasional sin seemed forgivable, but she was past logic at this point, since her hands seemed to be caressing his shoulders, even though she wasn’t directing them to do so.
“I will see to it there is no child,” he assured her, his gaze steady upon hers.
“Unless there already is.” This thought had already crossed her mind more than once, as she tried not to contemplate her arrival in England with a blossoming belly, and a man not yet her husband.
But he, as always, had a plan. “If there is a child, we will say we were married today in secret, and the license will say this, too.”
Except Horry would know the truth, she thought as she nodded in agreement, but decided there was nothing for it—they may have anticipated their vows, but the vows would definitely be said, so there was no real harm done.
Rising up on his knees, he began to gently work her nightdress over her head. “This time, you must try to stay silent,” he teased in a tender tone, kissing her as her head emerged from the folds of fabric.
“I was not myself,” she defended, her fingers on his buttons. “I can be as silent as a stone—you will see.”
This, as it turned out, was not exactly true, but any involuntary sounds were muffled by his mouth on hers as she clung to him, and relished every sensation. Her hands damp upon his back, she felt for the leather string that secured his braid. “May I see your hair?”
“No, lieve—if I am seen, it will tell the tale.”
“When we marry—” she gasped as his mouth worked its magic “I will see your hair—and your tattoos.”
“Assuredly,” he breathed, and then all verbal communication ceased.
Afterward, she lay in the crook of his arm, adrift in bliss with his lips in her hair. The ship tilted and creaked; Juno felt as though it would take an enormous effort to move, and so decided not to make the attempt.
“Ik houd u,” he whispered, his fingers moving gently on her arm.
“Teach me, please.” He said the words again, slowly so that she could repeat them. “Will you tell me of your life in Haarlem?”
“Some time,” he whispered, and despite her best efforts to savor every moment, she fell asleep.
Juno awoke the next morning with the feeling one has when there is a residual euphoria, but the memory is not yet in place. Breathing in, she remembered, and imagined she could still catch his scent on her pillow. This time, their lovemaking had been unhurried, the emotion intense. He craved her—she could sense it, and she was fast developing cravings of her own, now that she was becoming accustomed. I don’t know if I could raise much of a resistance if he seeks a repeat performance every night, she admitted to herself. But I should—we should not live as man and wife, when such is technically not the case.
Stretching, she contemplated her day, and wondered what her routine should be during the lengthy voyage—aside from trying not to dwell on the pleasures of the flesh. Aditi’s sewing lessons were to commence, there was that; and perhaps she could convince Jost to teach her to shoot. Her misadventures at the palace and at the school had convinced her that she should at least make the effort, although it may be too little too late; it seemed unlikely she would be required yet again to defend herself, once they were in England. On the other hand, she was as yet unmarried, and the bridegift beckoned, so it would be best to look lively.
After she’d dressed, she made her way to the quarter-galley, which served meals to the captain and the officers. Horry was already there, eating eggs and bacon without pause, and speaking in an excited manner to Landon, who listened without comment. Juno watched them for a moment with a full heart—a few short weeks ago her brother had been thin and weak; now his sunburnt cheeks glowed with health, and he’d gained at least a stone. We were slated to die at the hands of evil men, she thought, and my wonderful pirate rescued the both of us. If I weren’t already in love with him I should be, out of sheer gratitude.
“Hallo, Horry,” she greeted him. “I haven’t kept track of you—are you sleeping with the crew?”
“No, I’m bunking with Jost.” Her brother picked up the crumbs on his plate with a finger. “He wants me to learn how to do the hour of ‘turn to’ with him in the mornings.”
Juno smiled and privately thought that it was just as well; here was another reason Jostshould not come to her bunk very often—if he kept slipping out in the dead of night, Horry may guess what he was about, and she should try to set an better example, although thus far she’d not made much of an effort.
Juno spoke to Jairus—who had resigned himself to frying an additional rasher of bacon, as Horry showed no signs of slowing down—and requested toast and jam for herself. With a practiced movement, the cook sliced a slab from the loaf, and placed it in the toasting rack, all whilst turning the bacon without a pause.
“Landon is teaching me the sextant, and the chronometer.” Horry broke a biscuit as his sister sat beside him. “He says I can chart a course soon, if I practice.”
Juno turned to Landon, trying without success to imagine the man offering marriage to Aditi. “That is excellent news, Mr. Landon—and I am willing to commence the sewing lessons this morning, if you’d like.”
Landon shot her an assessing glance. “No hurry, miss; it can wait till she’s learned some manners.”
“Ridiculous,” pronounced Horry with some heat, as he paused in his meal. “Aditi should have been left behind, Juno, and a good riddance.”
Juno knew that Horry was still stung by his own guilt, and so she teased, “I shall push her overboard if she so much as looks at me cross-eyed, Horry; my word of honor.”
With a skeptical glance, Horry returned to his meal without comment, and so Juno said to Landon, “I can bear her today as well as any other; I suppose it is best to begin the rehabilitation process immediately.” She paused. “And since everyone seems to be giving lessons, perhaps someone will teach me how to shoot.”
“Oh, Lord.” Her brother shook his head. “Not me—I haven’t the patience.”
“What? I can certainly learn the fundamentals, one would think.”
“I imagine Jost will teach you, if you ask him nicely,” Horry glanced at her sidelong as he continued to eat. “He is that brave—or that besotted."
“Jost will what?” asked Jost, doffing his hat as he signaled to the busy cook.
“Teach Juno to shoot,” Horry explained. “Promise you won’t use live ammunition without giving everyone on board a warning.”
Jost turned to Juno, his teeth flashing. “Me, I am not afraid.”
“Unfair,” laughed Juno. “How difficult can it be?”
“Shooting is not difficult,” Horry observed. “It’s the being shot that is difficult.”
Even Jairus joined in the general laughter, but Landon came to her rescue, “I think it a fine idea; it gives a female a fighting chance—evens the odds, so to speak.”
Jost put a boot on the bench, and rested an arm on his leg as he contemplated Juno. “Me, I would like to teach you to shoot a blunderbuss, I think.”
Horry stopped eating long enough to lift his head and stare at him. “You are daft if you think she can heft a blunderbuss; is there even one on board?”
Struggling not to laugh, Juno said only, “I believe Sir Jost is teasing, Horry.”
“As long as you don’t forget my knife-throwing lesson,” Horry reminded him, trying to pick up the hot bacon with quick fingertips. “I asked first.”
In response, Jost made a quick movement into his boot, and Juno gasped as a knife was suddenly embedded in the bulwark, a foot from Jairus’ head. The cook only sighed and shook his head as he continued to turn the breakfast meats.
With an admiring exclamation, Horry jumped up and removed the knife from the wall, turning it over in his hands as he brought it back to Jost. “Here’s a wicked blade, sir. Where did you come by it?”
“Me, I had a disagreement with a man in Algiers,” Jost related in a mild tone. “And then he no longer needed it.”
Horry practiced a throwing motion until Jost snatched it away and--with a deft flick of his wrist--embedded it in the bulwark again.
“`ere now,” the cook protested. “I’m makin’ the young lady `er toast.”
“Hold the toast in your hand like so—I will spear it,” Jost suggested, making a throwing motion. Jairus only gave him an admonitory look, as he served up the toast and more bacon for the men. Jost slid onto the bench next to Juno, and she was very pleased that she could greet him with polite friendliness, considering that she had plied her tongue in his ear only a few hours earlier.
“What was it like, in Algiers? Is it as lawless as they say?”
While Jost considered Horry’s question, Juno caught Landon giving him a quick glance from under his brows. Here’s a story, she thought with interest; and whatever it is, Landon doesn’t think Jost wishes to speak of it.
“Algiers, it is a dangerous place—you must not visit.”
Laughing, Horry agreed. “Not likely—they’d make me a slave within a minute.”
“You’d not fetch a good price, Horry—not with your malaria,” Juno teased. For hundreds of years, the Barbary pirates had captured slaves from other countries, either holding them for ransom, or putting them to work. She cast a thoughtful glance at Landon, whose gaze now remained fixed on the table, and decided to change the subject. ‘Would it be acceptable if I hold my sewing lesson on deck?”
“On the aft deck,” Jost directed. “So that I can see you.”
“Yes, sir.” No doubt he was worried she’d disappear again; and truth to tell, she was more than happy to stay under his watchful eye—it would be a long time before she would dangle her legs over the side of a boat again.