The Bengal Bridegift
Juno and Jost shared a wedding dinner in the captain’s cabin, Jairus serving up an excellent fish filet, which grew cold on the table as the newlyweds discovered they had more of an appetite for each other. In a frenzy of mouths and hands, they retired to Jost’s berth which allowed for more freedom of movement than Juno’s berth and as a result, Juno finished the evening lying beneath her spent husband, as the candles guttered on the table. The cook hadn’t bothered to bring in the second course, and Juno suspected he may have put an ear to the door and then retreated. She was past being embarrassed, and instead drew her hands through Jost’s hair, which fell about his shoulders and back. “Are you asleep?” she asked softly.
“No,” he answered, his mouth in her neck. “But my strength, I think it is gone.”
She tugged on his ear lobe with her teeth. “You may rest; you have done well.”
“Give me a few minutes, only,” came the muffled reply. “And then we will see.”
Giggling, she clasped her arms around his neck, and nuzzled the side of his face, planting soft kisses. “Your eyelashes are so long—I noticed them straight away.”
“You were too frightened, lieve.”
“I was not,” she protested. “I knew from the start that you were not going to hurt me.”
He made a skeptical sound, and she giggled again. “You are fearsome, but I was not afraid—not truly.”
With an effort, he managed to lift himself, and prop up on his elbows. “I think to myself, ‘I must be very decorous, or this girl, she will not marry me.’”
Remembering the occasion, she made a wry mouth as she smoothed a lock of his hair away from his face. “Yes; it was decorous of you to offer to take me to bed.”
He kissed her nose. “Me, I make the joke so you do not think I am serious.”
“An excellent joke,” she agreed. “And I confess I was ready to reconsider the whole taking-to-bed idea, when I saw you without your shirt, the morning next.”
“Ah.” His mouth moved to kiss the corner of hers. “I think to myself, ‘she will fall into the well, this girl.’”
Laughing, she agreed, “You are so beautiful, I nearly did.” With a gentle hand, she pushed against him so that he rolled onto his back, and she ran her hands over his chest, placing her mouth against a large tattoo depicting a dragon. “Do you like dragons? The pipe you gave Papa is a dragon.”
“It is my ship—the Dragon.”
This was of interest, and Juno lifted her head to look at him. “The one in Algiers? Is it an Indiaman?”
“No, lieve. Me, I smuggled the opium for Rochon.”
He said it in a casual tone, his fingers rolling a tendril of her hair, but Juno was aware the statement was significant—she was very sensitive to his emotions, now. Tracing the dragon, she asked, “And who is Rochon?”
“Me, I will kill him,” said Juno’s husband. “Very slow.”
“Oh. He deserves it, I suppose?” Juno was not certain how supportive she should be of such a stated goal.
“Yes.” He paused, and Juno knew he was debating what to tell her. “He gathers the money for Napoleon.”
She assimilated this. “Like the diamonds?”
“Like the diamonds. But sometimes the money, it passed through the opium traders, instead of the Rajah.”
Feeling that she was doing an admirable job of hiding her shock, Juno continued to trace the markings on his chest, and said in a neutral tone, “You were—you were aiding Napoleon.”
He smoothed the tendril of hair behind her ear. “Me, I was aiding whoever pays me the most money. I was not the honest man, then.”
So—his was a redemption tale; thanks, apparently, to Papa. “Why are you so angry at Rochon? I would think instead that he would be angry at you, for turning coat.”
“What does this mean?” With an idle finger, he traced hers, spread out on his chest.
“It is when you change which side you are loyal to. You turn your coat inside out, so it is not the same color as before.”
He shifted his head on the pillow, and kept his gaze on his fingers, still stroking hers. “The English, it is very confusing.”
Sensing his reluctance, she told him gently, “If you’d rather not tell me, I truly don’t mind—you are the best judge of such things.”
“The men who fight—” he paused, gathering his thoughts. “Everyone understands together.”
“There are rules,” she guessed, trying to help him out. “A code.”
His gaze remaining on her hand, he continued, “No one hurts the women; no one hurts the children.”
This seemed indisputable, and Juno hid her growing horror. “But Rochon did?”
His eyes met hers. “He does not want me to work with the British. He takes my mother, he takes my sister. My half-sister,” he corrected. “She was ten.”
“Despicable,” she breathed.
“Despicable,” he repeated slowly. “Yes.”
Juno waited, afraid to ask.
“He cannot make me change my mind—so they die.”
Laying her cheek on his chest, she said softly, “Oh, Jost—I am so, so very sorry.”
“So now he will die.”
“It does seem justified.” She turned her head to kiss the hard muscles beneath her cheek. She had surmised he had no family left— small wonder he didn’t like to speak of it.
But he was not yet finished with the tale. “My mother, her life was not easy.”
Her head still on his chest, Juno could sense this was important, and not a random remark. “Poor woman,” she offered, waiting for whatever was to come.
“She worked on the docks. I did not know my father.”
So—his mother was a prostitute. Juno lifted her head to meet his eyes. “It does not matter, Jost.”
He watched her, and nodded. “But I think I must tell you.”
She said with complete sincerity, “You are the finest man I have ever known.”
There was a pause as those dark eyes rested on hers in the flickering candlelight. “Except for your father.”
“No,” she disagreed. “Papa would disregard his obligations if they were inconvenient—you are indeed the finest man I have ever known.”
He sighed, and gathered her to him, squeezing tenderly. “Me, I send her the money so she has a better life—so she can buy a house. Then she marries a good man—a merchant, and has the daughter. But he was forced to fight for the French, and was killed at Stralssund.”
I must never complain about anything—ever again, thought Juno. “I wish I could have met her.”
There was a pause for a few moments. “You are the finest woman,” he said softly.
She smiled into the dark cabin. “Then we are well-matched.”
Placing his hands gently under her arms, he pulled her so that she slid up to his mouth, and then kissed her until he rolled her beneath him for another session of lovemaking. Juno was more than willing, and knew that he was relieved to have gotten over the heavy ground as lightly as possible. I imagine there are more revelations to come, she thought--whilst she could still put two thoughts together—but these must be the most worrisome, because he felt he had to confess them as soon as we were safely married. As if I would back out, foolish man.
Still later, she lay dozing against him when she felt him slowly slide away from her. “Where are you going?” she murmured sleepily.
He leaned to kiss her. “Me, I am hungry.”
“Landon wasn’t hungry, on his wedding night,” she pointed out.
Chuckling, he stood up. “So—Landon is the finest man?”
“No.” She reached out to clasp his hand. “You are—go eat.”
Tugging on her hand, he said, “Come with me.”
“Bring me something,” she replied, rolling over. “I cannot face Jairus.”