ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 23

     After the sewing lesson concluded, Juno could only marvel at the hold Landon had established over the willful girl, and felt compelled to broach the subject later, when he approached Juno to thank her.  “Truly, it was not as much of a trial as I had expected—you have worked wonders.”

     “Best to keep her busy,” he explained in a practical manner. “Idle hands, and all.”

     “I understand I am to wish you happy.” Juno smiled, to show she would not berate him as a fool; they were leaning on the pin rail, watching the ocean hiss and churn in the ship’s wake.

     “You must think me mad,” he conceded bluntly. “Small blame to you; but I think she would benefit from a firm hand on the tiller, so to speak. She’s run wild.”

     As this seemed an understatement, Juno could make no encouraging reply. Watching her reaction, Landon shifted his feet. “It was your brother, miss; he was the one who brought it to my mind.”

     “Horry?” Juno gazed at him in puzzlement.

     “A fine boy,” Landon pronounced, his lean cheeks a bit reddened. “Never thought to marry—nor have any children, but now I think I would like to have a son or two, and the girl’s young enough to do the deed.”

     “Oh—oh, I see.  Then I wish you all the best, Mr. Landon.”

     “The best of luck, you mean,” he responded dryly.

     “You do have a ring?” Juno held the brim of her hat up so that she could meet his eyes in all seriousness. “I think it is important.”

     “I do.” He smiled. “Knew it would be.”

     Juno nodded, and then turned to watch the waves again.  “Will you tell me what happened in Algiers? Aditi spoke of being captured with Preya.”

     She had hoped to catch him off guard, with this change in topic, but he did not seem discomfited, and said only, “Not my tale to tell.”  He then seemed to weigh what to say, and added, “Don’t know as I would ask.”

     Juno wasn’t certain she would take the advice—she was willing to share Jost’s burdens, support him in any troubles.  On the other hand, it may have something to do with the work for the Crown that he shared with Landon.  With some delicacy, she asked, “Would it be that he cannot tell me, or he would choose not to?”

     Landon pursed his lips, deliberating. “A bit of both.”

     Her brow knit, Juno was winding up to ask another question, but Landon was too wily to await one, and bowed, thanking her again for her generosity to Aditi.

     He was replaced almost immediately by Jost, who stood at her elbow and pretended to be jealous. “You must not smile at Landon—me, I need him to take Aditi away from me.”

     “It is the eighth wonder of the world that he wishes to,” she agreed. “Perhaps I should make a push to beguile him, just to save him from his fate.”

     “I do not know what this means—” he placed his hand on hers even though it would be in plain view for anyone who happened to look “—but I forbid it.”

     “Fine, then; I shall beguile you, instead.” She smiled up into his eyes, very pleased by this public show of affection. Truly, when he looked upon her in such a way, the bed sport was brought very much to mind.

     As though reading her mind, he asked, “Tonight?”

     The giddy feeling dissipated as she reluctantly remembered the strictures of society. “Jost,” she replied in all seriousness. “I love you—you know I do; but we mustn’t—you must help me to be strong, and to resist you.”     

     “Yes.” He ducked his chin and withdrew his hand. “If you have the unhappiness, we will wait until we are wed.”

     She hastened to assure him, “It is not that I don’t wish to be with you, or that I regret it—not for a single moment—” Aware that she was talking herself out of her resolution, she firmly closed her lips.

     “Last night, it will be our secret,” he concluded philosophically. 

     Juno was a bit surprised that he would so readily concede—she expected at least an attempt at persuasion.  Firmly reminding herself that she shouldn’t be disappointed, she shook her head. “It is just as well—I have had my fill of secrets, this day.”

     Playfully, he tugged on the brim of her straw hat. “Me, I have no secrets from you, lieve. Only things I cannot tell you—not yet.”

     With a quirked mouth, she prompted, “For example, how you threw dice for Preya.”

     “Assuredly,” he agreed without missing a beat. “You must not be told of this.”

     She laughed aloud, and he joined in with her.  “It does seem a bit callous—heartless,” she corrected for his benefit. “If you tried such a trick with me, I would take the blunderbuss to you.”

     But he cocked his head, and shrugged. “Me, I was tired of her; but he desired her—it was the easy way for men to speak of it.”

     “I imagine there was a prodigious amount of drinking involved,” she observed dryly.

     He chuckled softly, and glanced behind her on the deck. “Back then, there was always the drinking—but not now.  Now, I am the decorous man.”

     Thinking of the definitely un-decorous things she had learned from him the night before, she diplomatically refrained from comment. “Where is Preya now? Is she part of your niyama?”

     But he hesitated, and appeared to weigh what he would say for a moment. “She is. But I could not find her—and your father, he needed my help, so I could not stay to look for her.”

     Aditi had been mistaken, then, in thinking Jost had rescued Preya and taken her away without telling the other girl where they went.   Juno touched his arm in sympathy. “You will find her; I have the utmost confidence in you.”

     “She had a little girl.” He met her eyes, and the manner in which he said it told her that it was a confession of sorts.

     “Your daughter?” Juno asked, guessing this was the case.

     He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Perhaps—mine, or the other’s.”

     So then, thought Juno, careful to maintain her poise; if I accept the man, I accept him as he comes.   “Is she safe, the little girl?”

     “She is dead.” 

     Her heart aching for him, she said quietly, “Jost, I am so sorry.”

     “It was the yellow jack. In the Dey’s bagnios, it spreads very fast.”

     “How terrible,” she whispered, placing a gentle hand on his forearm.

     “I came too late for her. I came too late for your father.”     

     His disappointment was palpable—he was not one to accept defeat in any form, and she longed to console him. “But you did not come too late for me.” She emphasized the words as she pressed both her hands around his arm.  “And not for Horry—you came in the nick of time for us, Jost.”

     “The nick of time,” he repeated, trying out the phrase.

     Earnestly, she gazed into his eyes. “Without a doubt—we would have both been dead by now.  And you rescued me from the Rajah, too—that would have been worse than being dead.”

     “No,” he corrected, his gaze serious upon hers.  “Dead would have been worse.”

     “If you say,” she agreed, deciding not to argue.  “So you have prevailed more often than you have not, Jost.”

     “They will pay,” he assured her, a hint of steel in his voice. “For everything.”

      They stood together, looking out to the sea, whilst she thought over what he had said. “What was her name, the little girl?”

     “Bala.”

     “Perhaps we shall have a daughter,” she ventured. “Not to replace Bala—but so that her loss is lessened.”

     “Yes,” he agreed, the glint of humor returning.  “But you must have the sons, too—do not forget this.”

     “If you insist,” she teased, pleased that she had apparently said the right thing to lighten his mood.  Turning to view the ship, she noted with surprise that Peyton stood at a small distance, awaiting a chance to speak to Jost.  Juno colored up, hoping he hadn’t overheard their intimate conversation. She indicated the other man with a tilt of her head. “I will go below.”

     Jost nodded. “If you will find Horry, I will teach him the chart.”

     “I will send him.” She then hesitated, self-conscious. Now that she knew of his loss, it did not seem the best time to withhold such comfort as only she could give him.  Trying to convince herself that she was not fishing for an excuse, she offered in a low voice, “Perhaps I shall leave my door unlocked tonight.” She met his eyes, a question contained in hers.

     “The lock, it would not stop me,” he replied, just as softly. “But your words, they would stop me.”

So—he was not going to allow her to give the choice back to him. She looked into his eyes for a long moment and decided there was nothing for it. “Come, then—please.”