The Bengal Bridegift
The next morning, Juno woke early and stared into the ashes in the grate for a moment, surprised she’d slept as well as she had. Propping herself up on an elbow, she listened, but did not hear any indication that her companion stirred. A pirate who was Papa’s cohort, she thought with some dismay; it wanted only this.
Stretching tentatively, she decided she would very much like to wash and make herself a bit more presentable before coming face-to-face with Mr. Van der Haar, regardless of his questionable allegiances. With this aim, she pulled on her shoes and found a tin pail amongst the rubble, then made her way outside to the garden well. As she turned the corner, she came upon the sight of the Dutchman, stripped to the waist and digging with the shovel so as to rebury the dead priest. Upon sighting her, he paused to catch his breath, taking off his hat and running the back of his arm over his forehead. “Good morning,” he called.
You must close your mouth, Juno, she told herself, and suited action to thought. His bare chest was well-muscled and broad, with tattooed markings up and down the length of his arms and on his torso, which was of a considerably lighter hue than his face and neck.
“You should not approach.” With a gesture, he indicated the corpse.
“I won’t,” she assured him, striving mightily to keep her gaze on his face as opposed to the rest of him, but finding that she was not entirely successful. She lifted the bucket. “I will fetch some water for washing.”
He nodded. “Can you start a fire?”
“Of course,” she replied, and hoped this was true.
“Leave some water in the bucket, and set it near the fire when you are finished—I will cook the eggs.”
“There is a mango tree just over there,” she indicated helpfully. “Shall I fetch one?”
“Very good.” After replacing his hat on his head, he bent to continue with his endeavors.
I should move, now, Juno thought, and tore her gaze from his muscled torso, chastising herself for shamelessness. But he was a fascinating sight, and he didn’t seem at all concerned about the proprieties—which made the entire situation less awkward, all in all.
By the time he entered the kitchen, Juno had managed to slice the mango and coax the water to a boil in the bucket. He carried the eggs in his felt hat, and it was apparent he’d washed at the well—his hair was wet, and his shirt clung to his skin where it was still damp. Genuinely curious, and deciding that he wouldn’t mind the question, she asked, “The markings you have—are they significant for any reason, or just fanciful?”
“They are for sentiment,” he teased, reminding her of what she’d said about Papa’s pipe.
“Oh—oh, I see.” She decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask him to enlarge upon the subject—she very much feared he wouldn’t hesitate to pull his shirt off again, and she truly shouldn’t encourage such an action. Truly, she shouldn’t.
After he’d soft-boiled the eggs, they took their wooden trenchers up once again and began their breakfast. The atmosphere had changed subtly; the Dutchman’s trace of amusement—always present, it seemed—was no longer in evidence. Cracking her eggshell, she glanced at him, and found that he was contemplating her, his expression grave.
“When did you last hear from your father?”
So—he was afraid she didn’t already know. She answered quietly, “I know he died of the cholera, in Madras.”
Nodding, he lowered his gaze and she was suddenly aware, for reasons she could not explain, that he did not believe this to be true. A bit shocked, she ventured, “Is this not what you have heard?”
His met her eyes again. “It is what I have heard. I am sorry.”
She gazed into his dark eyes for a long moment. “Thank you.” She hadn’t wept for her father—not yet, and perhaps not ever.
“The pipe—he gave it to you?”
“No.” With conflicting emotions, she contemplated the trencher in her lap. “He mislaid it, when last he visited—I was going to give it to him when he returned.” Unbidden, she had a sudden vision of the pipe in its usual waistcoat pocket, her larger-than-life father laughing in the loud way that he did, his thumb hooked in that same pocket. Overcome, she bent her head and began to cry, her hand covering her eyes; wholly embarrassed.
“Ach, Juno.” Her companion slid over to sit beside her stool, and take her hand in his. “I am sorry—I should not have said.”
After weeping silently for a few moments, she wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand and took a shuddering breath to steady herself. “No, no—it is only so hard to believe, I suppose; he—he always seemed so invincible.”
“Me, I do not know what this means,” he confessed.
She contemplated him through her tears, thinking about it. “It means it seemed nothing could harm him.”
He nodded, thoughtful. “Yes. He was a good friend. I will not find another one like him.”
The sincere accolade gave her pause; it did not gibe with her assumptions about the relationship between her father and this man. Noting that he still held her hand, she gently withdrew it, and decided she may as well ask. “Did the two of you have business ventures together?”
Ah—she could see he became wary, all of a sudden, and he answered carefully, “Your father and me, we shared many adventures.”
Yes, she thought with some bitterness—I imagine you did. She thought of the diamonds, and of her journey ahead, and the wrongs that must be made right, and wished she could go back to how things were before that terrible, terrible morning; when the Lloyd’s investigator came to tell her of Papa’s death, and that there were a few questions, if she wouldn’t mind answering them as best she could.
“We go to see your brother, yes?”
She broke away from her melancholy reverie to answer him. “Yes, please.”
“You should bring your things,” he directed. “We will not come back.”
This was not a concern. “I’m afraid all my things were destroyed by the Mughals.”
They regarded each other, and Juno was aware he knew very well why the looters had ripped up her valise, and shredded all the clothes within. Lifting her chin, she stood and brushed off her skirts. “I shall have to purchase some clothes at the commissary, I suppose, to replace what was lost.”
Donning his hat, he indicated she was to follow, as he walked out the door into the bright sunlight. “Me, I will pay for these clothes.”
Following him down the front steps, she disclaimed, “Thank you for such a kind offer—” she’d seen no indication he carried any money “—but it will not be necessary; Horry should have some funds at the fort—enough to tide us over, certainly.”
“Do not be so foolish.” He glanced sidelong at her, the amused gleam back in place. “The money, it will be a loan.”
“I’m afraid I cannot allow you to buy my clothes.” She followed him as they made their way across the yard to the path that led to Fort William. “It would not be decorous.”
He cocked his head, thinking; the long braid falling over his shoulder. “I do not know what this means.”
“It means—it means it would not be proper,” she explained, her cheeks a bit pink.
The look he gave her was dubious. “If it was my child, your father would do the same.” He idly picked up a branch and broke off the leaves, fashioning a walking stick.
Knowing her father, this was indisputably true—but it was also indisputably true this man was not her father’s age, being perhaps in his early thirties, although it was difficult to judge, due to his exotic appearance. Therefore, it was an entirely different matter, but she decided she didn’t want to delve into further explanations. “As a loan,” she conceded. “A private loan.” She emphasized the adjective and hoped he knew enough not to speak openly of such matters. “You must give me your direction, and I will make certain you are repaid.”
“There is no need,” he said easily, slicing at the underbrush with the stick as they walked along the pathway. “Once we are in London, you can repay me.”
She stared at his back, and found she had wildly conflicting emotions within her breast. “You are going to London with us?”
He spoke over his shoulder. “Assuredly. I must speak to your nabob.”
Juno’s acquaintanceship with this man was not longstanding, but his meek tone was enough to set off a warning alarm in her mind, and she nearly stumbled to catch up to him. “And why do you need to speak to my nabob?”
He turned to look down at her, his eyes wide and guileless. “You are ruined.”
Utterly shocked, she was brought up short, but he continued walking. “Come, come,” he chided over his shoulder, gesturing with his stick. “Make haste.”
Hurrying to catch up once again, she said with a great deal of emphasis, “I assure you, Mr. Van der Haar—I am not ruined.”
“Ruined,” he repeated matter-of-factly, his gaze focused upward on the sunlight, filtering through the forest canopy.
“I think—” she offered, “—that this is another word you do not understand.”
He cocked his head to contemplate her. “Yes? What does it mean?”
She could feel herself blushing hotly, and struggled with the explanation, all the while aware that he was enjoying himself hugely. “It means I have will have granted you a husband’s rights, even though we are not married.”
He looked forward again. “I see. It is the wrong word, then.”
“Compromised, I think, is the word you seek.” Juno realized her error the moment she said the words.
“You are compromised,” he corrected immediately, without breaking stride. “And now I must marry you.”
“I am not compromised, either,” she assured him firmly.
“Juno, Juno,” he chided. “We stayed the night together—we ate, and we bathed.”
Completely nonplussed, she stared at him, trying to decide if he was teasing her. “No one knows of this,” she reminded him. “And no one need know.”
He cast her a baleful glance. “Ach, Juno—I am the honest man.” He couldn’t quite contain a smile at this out-and-out falsehood, and she decided with some relief that he was indeed teasing.
“And what about your poor betrothed?” With this reminder, she tried to match his mock-serious manner. “You cannot marry the both of us.”
“Me, I have no betrothed.” He tossed the stick from hand to hand as though it were a sword. “I do not know why you say such a thing.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh, or be outraged. “You said so yourself just last night—you said you were to be wed.”
“Me, I was speaking of you,” he explained, as though speaking to a simpleton. “You must pay closer attention, Juno.”
They walked a few more steps in silence, whilst she struggled with her emotions.
“I must explain this to your nabob,” he continued with a serious air. “And allow him to thrash me, if he chooses.”
The idea that the Nabob could thrash the dangerous specimen that walked beside her proved too much, and Juno placed her palms over her eyes and started to laugh, leaning over and unable to proceed until her merriment had ceased. “You are the most absurd creature,” she gasped.
He stood and watched her, a smile playing around his lips. “You have a very sweet laugh,” he observed. “I am glad to hear it.”
Still smiling, she addressed him. “Mr. Van der Haar. . .”
“Jost,” he corrected.
“Jost,” she agreed, humoring him. “I beg of you—say nothing of this to anyone.”
He contemplated her for a moment. “You must agree that we will wed, yes?”
Juno decided she would agree to no such thing, and that it was past time to throw him off balance, for a change. “I am concerned you only seek to lay your hands on my Papa’s pipe.”
But if she thought to disconcert him, she was to be disappointed. “Me, I wish only to see what you do with it,” he replied easily. “If I wanted to lay my hands on it, Juno, I would have.”
Her brow knit, she regarded him, bemused. “I wish I understood all this better than I do.”
“You are doing very well,” he offered kindly, and resumed walking.