The Bengal Bridegift
And so a short while later, Juno arrived at her new quarters in the Fleet Prison, after having been transported up the Strand from Westminster. Jost was allowed to accompany her in the prisoner’s coach, and he kept her spirits up by describing the eunuchs who guarded the Dey’s prison in Algiers, extolling their ferocity at great length.
“No more, I beg of you,” she exclaimed, laughing. “I shall have nightmares.”
“This place, it is nothing,” he assured her, as they rattled along the cobblestones.
Trying to maintain a light tone, she teased, “Have you been held here at the Fleet, also? Perhaps you should write a guidebook about all the prisons you have known.”
He disclaimed, “No—this one, it is for the men who cannot pay their debts. Me, I pay my debts, but the English, they were not happy with where the money came from. They put me in Newgate Prison, but I did not want to stay there, so I broke out, and stole a ship.”
“Well, you shouldn’t break me out, Jost, but will you stay near at hand?” She was trying to suppress her extreme dismay at this latest turn of events, but thus far, had been only partially successful.
He held her hand in his, and bent his head to hers. “Me, I must be very busy, lieve. But I will come whenever I can.”
Aware that some sort of plan was afoot, she nodded, trying to remember that her concerns were not nearly as important as his concerns in this matter—what with blood vengeance, and the fate of the world at stake. “Where will you go—can you say?”
“Me, I go to find the diamonds,” he answered easily.
As the guards who were escorting them could overhear, she knew he would say nothing more specific, and so she only cautioned him to be careful. “You have a tendency to be reckless, I think—it comes from wresting things from people at will.”
But he would not agree, and met her eyes in all seriousness. “Me, I am very careful, lieve. It is why I am alive, still.”
This seemed inarguable, and did offer her some relief as she resolutely looked out the grated window at the passing scene. “I will not worry, then.”
“You will worry,” he corrected, lifting her hand to kiss its back. “But you will be safe, and so me, I will not worry.”
“That is true; and apparently, to while away the time I shall have visitors.” She threw him a speculative glance.
“Yes, you will draw the visitors,” he confirmed, but gave no further insights. Watching out the window, she tried to stifle her annoyance. Honestly; the least they could do was tell her what she should and shouldn’t say to whoever was being drawn in. Apparently, this was not a concern which was just as well; she was not good at duplicity—which was no doubt why she was not in Jost’s confidence. I must not be a baby, she rebuked herself; this is deadly serious, and these men know what they are about. Turning, she smiled at Jost, and squeezed his hand, and he rewarded this sentiment by leaning to kiss her mouth in full view of the guards.
The Fleet Prison was a grim and utilitarian brick building, four stories tall, which surrounded a central courtyard. The warden ushered them to Juno’s room which, he explained, was the most comfortable one on the premises, save his own. Juno was pleasantly surprised; coming in from the long gallery hall, there was an antechamber and then her cell, which boasted both a fireplace and a window. The furnishings were not luxurious, but were by no means shabby, and the room was fairly spacious. If the door to the cell had not been made of iron bars, it could easily have passed for a room at a respectable inn.
There were twenty other rooms on this floor on the Master’s side of the prison, which were reserved for those inmates who could pay for more comfortable accommodations. “It will be quiet, my lady,” the warden explained. “Most are on the common side, nowadays—we’ll keep the riff-raff away from you.”
Juno was introduced to a chambermaid who would see to her needs, and the turnkey who would act as a guard to her room. Juno noted that said turnkey met Jost’s eye for a brief but significant moment, and concluded he was also a friend to the grey-eyed gentleman.
Despite the fact that it was not nearly as grim as she had envisioned, Juno found it very discouraging to hear the iron bars slam behind her, and felt compelled to pull up a chair and cling to Jost’s hand through the bars for a time. He took her mind off the situation by discussing what she would need, as she had no clothes—not even a toothbrush. “Ask Landon to choose a dress,” she suggested. “He has good taste.”
The Dutchman cocked his head in apology. “Landon, he will be very busy.”
“Everyone is very busy, save me,” she complained. “I am slated to rot in prison.”
“Horry, he is also not busy,” he soothed. “And please do not rot.”
Ashamed that she had complained, she subsided. “If you would bring me a brush, Jost. And a warm wrap.”
“Me, I will ask the girls who work at the shop to help me,” he assured her.
“No flirting,” she directed. “You are a married man.”
He lifted her hand to kiss it lingeringly. “Me, I never forget. Not for a minute.” He rose to leave. “Ik houd u.”
“Ik houd u.” She watched the turnkey escort him out to the gallery, unable to suppress a bleak feeling within her breast, as the door was shut behind him. Trying to cheer herself with the conviction that he would return soon, it suddenly occurred to her that—for all the stealth and secrecy that had been necessary, so far—her very recognizable husband was apparently going shopping in London, bold as brass. Struck by this, she was reminded of his comment in Fort St. George, when he had openly shown his interest in her to unseen watchers. He is making the birds beat their wings again, she thought; here’s hoping he knows what he is about.
Once having started on this particular train of thought, Juno tried to pass the time by contemplating her situation, and piecing together what she knew. Although she hated to admit it, the discussion with the judge had made her uneasy in that it seemed evident he believed Jost’s motives in marrying her were suspect. Indeed, even the grey-eyed man had conveyed the same impression—he was unhappy that Jost had secured title to the bridegift without his knowledge. But there is no bridegift, thought Juno in exasperation—I am sure of it, and I should have been more adamant with the judge on the subject. Although, she acknowledged fairly, the fact that others thought there was a bridegift was what put her at risk—whether or not it truly existed was beside the point. And Jost did not seek an advantage for himself—she would swear to it. There was something else at play; it seemed evident they were setting some sort of trap for the Nabob—although a trap hardly seemed necessary, considering the man’s despicable actions in falsely declaring her married, and then dead. He could not possibly escape justice, no matter his power, and the scheduled hearing would expose his perfidy to the world. Once the testimony was taken, the Nabob would then be arrested, and then her prison stay would come to an end—and not a moment too soon. Fingering one of the iron bars on the door, she tried not to think about having to sleep without her husband’s comforting presence beside her.
Several hours later, the turnkey entered the door again to inform her she had a visitor, waiting in the gallery. “A Mr. Peyton, my lady.”
“Oh,” sighed Juno, who was still trying to adjust to her circumstances. “I do not know if I would like to entertain Mr. Peyton, just now.”
The turnkey stood and regarded her with a wooden expression, unmoving. After watching him for a few moments, Juno ventured, “On the other hand, it is very kind of him to come.”
This was apparently the correct decision, as the man continued, “I am to stand within the door while you entertain visitors—it is for your own safety, my lady.”
“Thank you.” She watched him open the outer door, turning over this development in her mind. Peyton, she thought in surprise, and remembered the recent scar on the man’s temple. Be wary, Juno.
But Peyton’s appearance was not at all ominous, and he carried a welcome armload of books. “Lady Van der Haar, I am so sorry to hear of your incarceration.”
“Thank you—it serves as a reminder that I should take care to commit no felonies.”
Smiling at her jest, he indicated the books, as he set them down. “I made so bold as to acquire some books from the lending library down the street; I hope you do not mind.”
As he handed her the books one at a time through the bars, she thanked him. “I was just thinking of sending my husband for books—I appreciate it enormously.”
“Is the Captain here? I’m afraid I missed out on all the excitement, and I have no standing orders.”
“I’m not certain where he is,” she answered in all sincerity, stacking the books in her cell. “I imagine he will return soon.”
Peyton straightened. “And your brother? Is young Horry with the Captain? I had thought to give him a tour of London, if he is free.”
The judge may have thought Juno naïve and too trusting, but a small alarm sounded in her mind. “I’m afraid I’m not certain where Horry is, either—I wish I could be more helpful.”
Peyton demurred with his grave smile. “It is not your fault, certainly; it must be beyond vexing to be held here for no other crime than to command a fortune—one that may or may not exist, I might add, which only makes the whole thing even more unfair. Although Jairus informs me you were carrying a cache of diamonds on our journey, unbeknownst to the rest of us.”
As this cat appeared to be well out of the bag, she answered honestly. “I confess it was a relief to turn them over—I am not certain to whom they belong, but I am certain they are not mine.”
“Such honesty is indeed refreshing—and I must commend you; you have had a difficult time of late.”
As this seemed self-evident, Juno decided to change the subject. “Will you visit your family now that you are in England, Mr. Peyton?”
Her visitor disclaimed with a small smile. “I have no family in England, my lady—perhaps now that I have some leave time, I will visit friends. Have you any relatives in the area?”
“I do not,” she confessed with a small shake of her head. “Or if I do, I do not know of them—I left England when I was very young, and can scarcely remember.”
“Then Horry would not be staying with them,” he concluded, thoughtful.
“You are eager to track down my wayward brother,” Juno observed with a smile, hiding a qualm at this realization.
But the man shrugged in a disarming gesture. “He is good company—such high spirits are impossible to resist, and since I am at loose ends, I thought I’d seek him out.”
Juno made a wry mouth. “If you do run across him, let him know that I am here—he does not yet know.”
“Certainly,” the other agreed, his grave manner returning. “He mustn’t neglect his sister, in her troubles.”
At this juncture, voices could be heard in the gallery—one of them Jost’s—and he entered, carrying parcels under an arm. “Peyton; you will break Juno out, yes?”
“If that is an order, I will do my best,” the other replied with good humor, assisting with the unloading of the parcels.
“Mr. Peyton was kind enough to bring me some books,” Juno explained.
“Good man,” said her husband. “Me, I am not the one for books.”
“But I see you have brought me some clothes.” Juno smiled with gratitude.
“Many clothes,” her husband added with a gleam. “The shop girls, they said much was needed.”
Peyton chuckled. “I can see that I am de trop, and I shall take my leave. Good luck, my lady; I hope your stay here is a brief one.”
As he left, Jost watched him go, amused. “Vrijster.”
“Me, I do not know what this means,” Juno replied, imitating him.
“A woman who never married.”
“Well, be that as it may, he did offer to marry me, on board the ship.”
Her husband met her eyes in astonishment. “Verdomme. And yet you did not tell me of this?”
“It was out of chivalry—when he told me about Preya, and thought I might have need of a husband, since you were already wed.” She eyed him. “I did not realize at the time that Peyton was not to be trusted.”
But she was to obtain no insights on this very interesting subject, as Jost only noted, “Me, I make the better husband, yes?”
Juno decided she was not going to be distracted, and continued, “He wanted to know where Horry was—he seemed rather persistent.” She watched for his reaction to this revelation, but was again to be disappointed.
“Me, I look for Horry, also. He has my razor.”
“Horry is shaving?” This was news to Juno.
Jost paused, his hands on his hips, and offered diplomatically, “Horry, he thinks so.”
Juno had to laugh, and then found she was suddenly on the verge of tears. “I hate this,” she confessed as he drew her to him through the bars, so that his hands cradled her head. “I miss you, and I miss Horry.”
“Ach, Juno; I am sorry for it,” he soothed. “I will sleep here, for the first night.”
“You shouldn’t have to sleep on the floor,” she protested half-heartedly, wiping her eyes.
“Me, I have slept on the floor more than on the beds. It is nothing.”
Ashamed that she had lost her composure, she rallied, “It will be like that first night at the school, remember? Only not quite as nerve-wracking.”
“Me, I watched you sleep, that first night,” he confessed. “I could not stop.”
“Oh, Jost,” she whispered, and began to weep again.