The Bengal Bridegift
“How was your curtsey? Did Mr. Landon’s mother approve?”
Juno was sitting with Aditi in the parlor of their temporary residence on Cutler Street. The East India Company had given them the use of the residence, the staff, and a carriage; the Company’s Governors being very pleased with the denouement of Juno’s latest adventure.
“She is very nice to me—she puts me in bed with a hot brick.” Aditi had been suffering mightily from morning sickness. “She thinks the baby is a boy, because she had a dream.”
There was little of the houri to be seen in the demure young woman seated across from her, and Juno could only marvel at Aditi’s easy transition from one role to the other. “Did she make any inquiries about your former life?” Juno could easily imagine the outspoken Aditi reciting chapter and verse to the horrified woman.
Aditi’s amber eyes gleamed. “I was raised in a convent school outside of Bengal.”
“Were you indeed?” Juno smiled, very much amused.
Landon says she will not ask about it because she is not Roman Catholic.”
Juno had to laugh aloud. “An excellent strategy.” Let the woman think misguided religious beliefs were Adidi’s worst sin—it was also a handy way to explain away any gaffes. Aditi had come a long way, but Juno was not fooled; the girl would be a handful, and Landon would no doubt be led a merry chase—although perhaps motherhood would have a steadying effect; stranger things had happened.
“What did Preya say to you—did she admire your ring?” Aditi had been reunited with Preya the day before; Juno was told the woman was also enjoying the generosity of the Company’s Governors, who were as happy with her as they were with Juno—it was much better for business that the Nabob was awaiting trial on charges of theft and assault, than on charges of treason, and Preya had been instrumental in achieving this aim.
Jost had also gone to visit Preya this morning, which is why Juno had sent for Aditi—it was best to have Aditi visit when Jost was away from home. Her husband was a loyal friend, but Juno had come to the conclusion that once you lost his good opinion, it was lost forever. Juno had asked if he’d like her to accompany him on his visit, but he had shaken his head. “No, lieve—it is better that I see her alone.”
Juno respected his decision, and felt she could understand; Preya would wish to see her old lover without Juno present, to remind her that time and events had moved on. On the other hand, she hoped Jost wouldn’t stay overlong—one shouldn’t tempt fate, after all.
Lost in her thoughts, Juno realized that Aditi was hesitating in her answer. “What do you know of Preya?” the girl asked cautiously.
Puzzled, Juno said, “I know of what you told me; that she was Jost’s—paramour—then your brother’s, before he was killed. And that she was captured in Algiers with you.”
Her brow knit, Aditi contemplated Juno thoughtfully. “I do not know what to tell you.”
Juno was surprised at the girl’s reticence, especially now that there was no longer a need to pretend that Preya was married to Jost. “I hold no grudge against Preya, Aditi—she testified at my trial, and was very helpful in setting up the trap for the Nabob.”
“Preya has the wasting sickness,” Aditi disclosed in her abrupt way. “She dies, soon.”
“Oh,” breathed Juno in dismay. “Oh—I am so sorry, Aditi.”
No stranger to life’s hardships, Aditi simply shrugged, and Juno reflected that women of such a profession rarely lived to old age—it also explained why Preya had seemed so thin to Juno. “It is heartbreaking, such a series of tragedies,” Juno continued in a subdued tone. “First your brother, then her daughter, and now she is slated to join them—all in such a short time.”
Aditi’s sharp gaze darted to Juno’s face, then lowered to her lap, as she nodded without comment. Juno watched her narrowly for a moment, contemplating a sudden and unbidden thought, and decided to change the subject. “Did you kill Mr. Peyton like Judith, wielding her sword?” Truthfully, she would not be at all surprised.
With a slow, reminiscent smile, Aditi gazed into the fire. “I take him to the bed, and I say I must leave for a moment—then the others run in, and seize him. He was naked.” It was clear that she relished the memory.
Juno contemplated how best to raise the question that she was most curious about, then decided there was no point in being discreet with Aditi. “Did you—service him?”
“Never,” Aditi retorted with a full measure of scorn. “But I made him think I would.”
“You fooled me,” Juno admitted. “You were very good.”
“Yes,” Aditi agreed without conceit. “Landon says they wanted to use me again, but he told them no, because of the baby.”
“I suppose you must obey your husband, now,” Juno ventured. “It must seem strange to you, after the life you’ve led.”
But Aditi showed no sign of discontent, and smoothed her skirt over her knee, her face softening. “Landon takes care of me like—like I am a ranee. He is the one teaching me to read, now.” She paused. “And he tells his mother lies, so that she will like me.”
“An excellent trait in a husband,” responded Juno, hiding a smile.
The girl raised her face, and leaned forward in a confiding manner. “And he is like a Brahman bull, in the bed.”
“Oh,” said Juno, her cheeks pink. “How very gratifying.”
Fortunately for Juno’s composure, any further confidences on the subject were interrupted when the maidservant entered with a tea tray that featured freshly baked macaroons.
“Agh.” Aditi quickly averted her eyes. “I must be sick.” She then fled to the retiring room under Juno’s ambivalent gaze; Juno was beginning to suspect that she and Aditi shared the same condition, and she couldn’t like this display of the consequences.
Aditi eventually returned, her lips a bit pale. “Shall I ring for anything?” asked Juno, unsure of how to help. “Tea, perhaps? I could probably find some of Horry’s chinchona bark.”
“The ginger root is better—have you ginger root?”
“Perhaps,” offered Juno in a dubious tone, and asked the maidservant to inquire of the cook.
“Where is Horry?” asked Aditi. “Landon says he saved you, by swimming across the big river.”
“Today he is at the docks with a little boy who helped us; they are buying a new skiff.” Li’l Bob had been returned to his shanty on the river, after Jost had urged him to join his crew. The boy had refused, explaining that his father needed him, and after Jost had assured him he would always be welcome if he changed his mind, the two had parted with no further animadversions on either side. Jost had shaken his head as they walked away, expressing his opinion that men of the father’s ilk usually did not live long, and the boy was foolish not to take the chance to better himself.
Juno had observed fairly, “He is loyal to his father—you can respect that, I think.” But Jost, who had willingly gone to sea at a tender age, could not think it a good choice.
“When do you leave?” Aditi interrupted her thoughts.
“Soon, I hope,” Juno admitted. “I can’t imagine living here in London, and Horry is pestering Jost to leave. We are only waiting for Jost’s shoulder to heal a bit more—I’m afraid he will not give it rest on a ship.”
“You go to Tortola?” Aditi’s speculative gaze was sharp upon her again.
“I imagine—at least I haven’t heard otherwise. And what of you, Aditi? Will you stay in London until the baby is born?”
“Yes—Landon says there is much work to do.” She tossed her head. “He is very important.”
Nodding, Juno was willing to offer support for this accolade. “He is very good at what he does—he terrified me, when first we met.”
“He says I am much prettier than you.” Aditi fired off this salvo with a great deal of satisfaction.
“As well he should—and you are indeed beautiful, Aditi,” Juno offered in all sincerity.
With the same triumphant mien, the Indian girl continued, “His mother wishes me to meet her friends. She says they have many grandchildren, and now it is her turn.”
“You are to be paraded around like a prize, then,” Juno teased, and hoped Aditi would behave herself; although perhaps now that she carried the much-desired grandchild, she could do no wrong.
To Juno’s surprise, the kitchen managed to serve ginger root tea, and after Aditi carefully sipped a cup, the visit came to an end. “If I write to you, will you write me back?” asked Juno as they walked to the door. “Landon could help you.”
“If I am not too busy,” replied the other girl, with her usual lack of tact. “Then perhaps.”
Juno watched her enter the waiting carriage, and spied her husband’s tall figure approaching at the same time. She waved Aditi away, relieved that Jost did not have to encounter the girl. As she met him at the door he bent to kiss her. “Me, I hoped you would push Aditi down the steps.”
“Next time,” she promised. “Come in and have some macaroons; the cook has some fresh-baked.” The quantity of food her husband could consume never ceased to amaze her, and she rang for the tea tray to be re-introduced.
Jost accompanied her to the drawing room, and paused by the window for a moment, gazing out, and lost in thought. He then winced as she helped him remove his coat—he was supposed to wear a sling, but scorned such a sign of weakness.
Assessing him, Juno gauged his mood. Troubled, she decided, and small blame to him; it couldn’t have been easy to visit Preya, and be reminded that so many who were dear to him are now dead—or near dead. Fortunately, she knew the cure for what ailed him. Walking up from behind, she ran her hands around his waist and up his chest, pulling him against her. “Come with me, husband—I have a mind to inspect your dragon.”
In response, he tilted his head back to consider the ceiling, a smile playing around his lips. “Ach, Juno; you make the demands on me—again and again.”
“Let us try not to re-open your wound, this time,” she murmured, and he turned to hoist her up against him, bad shoulder notwithstanding. Nothing loath, she wrapped her legs around his hips, her skirts ruched up, and as he carried her toward the bedroom she could see the maid, coming in from the kitchen with the tea tray, retreat in embarrassed confusion.