The Bengal Bridegift
“Juno—lieve, you must be quiet,” Jost whispered from behind her head, as he held her struggling form against his chest.
In response, she kicked out wildly as he held her aloft, one hand over her mouth, and one arm clasped around her waist, like a band of iron.
“You must listen, yes?” he insisted, near her ear. “It is important.”
She subsided, mainly because she was having trouble drawing breath, between his hand over her mouth, and the paralyzing realization that she had misjudged her man. Gauging her moment, she brought her heel against his shin with as much strength as she could muster.
Grunting, he shifted his hold so that she could not repeat the attack. They were in her room at the women’s quarters, where she had awakened to the terrifying sight of his form looming over her in the darkness; his breath on her face. On instinct, she’d scrambled out of the bed to make a dash for the door, and the current wrestling match had ensued, although it was more properly a mismatch, as she was now suspended helplessly.
“I am not going to hurt you, lieve—my promise.”
Closing her eyes, she drew a long breath through her nose, and forced herself to calm down, her heart still hammering.
“We must go, and make haste,” he said quietly into her ear. “Horry, too.”
She placed her hands on the muscular forearm wrapped around her waist, and tapped her fingers to indicate he could put her down. Carefully, he complied, watching for her reaction, and ready to recapture her, if she showed an inclination to escape.
After drawing several gasping breaths, she turned to face him. “You frightened me,” she accused, a bit ashamed by her overreaction.
“You frightened me,” he returned, very much put-upon. “My leg, I think it is broken.”
She had no sympathy, and rubbed her bare arms with her hands. “What has happened? Is Horry all right?”
“Horry is leaving this place tonight—it is not a good place for him.”
She stared up at him in the dimness, completely astonished. “But—but he is not well enough to travel.”
Her companion set his jaw a bit grimly. “He will never be well again, if he stays. You must gather your things and we will go. Make haste.”
Nonplussed, she faltered, “You cannot mean that his physician is—is poisoning him, or some such thing; why, that is absurd.”
But he’d moved over to stand beside the window, moving the curtain aside to take a cautious look down below. “There is no time to argue. Come, come; gather your things, and we go out the window.”
She stared at him. “I—I can’t go out the window in my nightdress.”
“It is not a good nightdress,” he pointed out. “You must find a better one.”
Blushing to the roots of her hair, she noted with some irony, “I beg your pardon; I did not foresee that I would be entertaining anyone in it.”
“We have no time to discuss the bed sport,” he chided her. “Make haste.”
Bewildered, and very much fearing she was going to do whatever he asked, she ran her hands through her disordered hair. “Where do you mean to go?”
He fixed his dark gaze on hers, completely serious, for once. “Me, I am going to find out who killed your father.”
She stared at him for a few stunned moments, as the words hit home. “Well then,” she said briskly, “let us make haste.”
Stepping over to the narrow cot, he pulled the pillow case from the pillow. “If you wish to dress, do it quickly.” He then crossed over to the wardrobe, and pulled the only two dresses she owned off their hooks, so as to stuff them in the pillowcase.
“I’ll wear that one,” she indicated, and when he tossed it to her, she decided she should cling to whatever shreds of propriety that were left. “You must turn your back.”
He did, and whilst she scrambled out of her nightdress and into her linen shift, he asked, “Where is the pipe?”
“I have it in my glove, still.”
Considering this, he decided, “Me, I will put it in my boot.”
This did not seem wise; and Juno knew a moment’s qualm—although certainly, if his intent was to steal the diamonds, there was no need even to wake her. “I—I promised the priest I would not entrust them to anyone,” she explained diplomatically. “It is not that I don’t trust you, but I should not break a promise to a priest.”
“He was no priest,” her companion replied, but made no further argument. Between them, they managed to securely tie the glove on a shoestring around her neck. Although she stood in her shift for this procedure, he betrayed no consciousness of this fact, and efficiently lowered her frock over her head at its conclusion, leading her to believe he was well-versed in the dressing of women.
Having no time to comb her hair, she ruthlessly twisted it into a knot at the nape of her neck whilst he approached the window, and lifted the sash as far as it would go. He then held up a cautioning hand to her, and listened with his head out the window for a few moments. “We go,” he advised, and threw a leg over the window sill, the pillowcase with her clothes bundled under his arm, and dropped to the ground. He gestured to her from below, and after closing her eyes tightly, she leapt into his waiting arms.
“You must follow and stay quiet, yes?”
She nodded, and did as he directed, expecting him to head toward the infirmary as they skirted the walls of the buildings, staying in the shadows so as to avoid any patrolling soldiers. Instead, however, he seemed intent on reaching the perimeter wall that surrounded the fort. Once there, he pressed close to the wall and hurried toward the water gate entrance, the one nearest the dock.
As she tried to keep up with him, Juno wondered how he planned to extract Horry, and was acutely aware that she was not cut out for this sort of adventure—she was very much afraid that they would be discovered and seized at any moment. On the other hand, this type of skulking seemed very natural to Jost, so perhaps she should become accustomed—if she planned to accept his offer, at some point. Not that there seemed any chance that anyone else would have her, after this latest compromising—not even the Purser’s clerk.
Her distracted thoughts were interrupted by the realization that they now approached the water gate, manned by soldiers who—one would think—would not allow Juno to pass unremarked. She hurried closer to Jost, awaiting instruction, but he only kept up his progress in the shadows, and boldly approached the soldier who stood at the pass-through door that allowed for foot traffic.
Juno stood behind Jost as the soldier, wooden-faced, opened the door for them without comment. Glancing up as she passed, she saw the sentry exchange a significant look with her escort.
“Was that a friend?” she asked in a whisper, after they’d cleared the dry moat that surrounded the fort. It seemed that they were headed to the river, and the air began to stir, and feel cooler.
“Me, I have many friends,” he explained in a low tone. “You must say no more until I tell you, lieve.”
Silently, Juno followed him, staying to the edge of the vast maidan as they crossed toward the River Hooghly, with the moonlight illuminating their progress, and the night insects making their usual racket. Ahead, Juno could see several soldiers guarding the dock, and blushed to think how it would look—what with her creeping out of the fort with Jost in the dead of night—but before they came to the dock, he deviated from the path, and descended the bank toward the river. Turning, he offered a hand to her so that she didn’t slip down the grassy slope, and then did not release her hand as he led her to the water’s edge.
A small skiff was secreted among the reeds, and Jost first saw her seated in the stern, and then pushed off and climbed in himself, taking up the oars. Juno decided she could remain silent no longer, and whispered with some anxiety, “I cannot leave Horry behind, you know.”
“You will not,” he assured her, and then motioned for her to be quiet, as he rowed away from the shore and up the river, the oars making a lapping sound. If Juno hadn’t been having second thoughts about the wisdom of her actions this evening, she would have enjoyed it very much—the moonlight on the placid river, with the plying of the oars the only sound. As it was, she could only sit in silent anxiety, fingering the pipe beneath the fabric of her dress, and hoping it wouldn’t be necessary to leap out of the boat, and swim to shore. After a few minutes, she realized that their destination was an unlit schooner, anchored off-shore in the river ahead. Once they came alongside, Jost instructed her in a low voice to climb up the rope ladder that hung against the hull.
Juno swallowed hard and obeyed, balancing in the skiff as she grasped the ropes, with Jost standing astride behind her. I hope, she thought as she made her way up the ladder whilst he held it steady, that I am not making a monumental mistake. For reasons that cannot withstand scrutiny, I am reposing complete trust in a man who can only be described as piratical, and who has abducted me twice, thus far.
Her fears appeared to come to immediate fruition when the man at the gunwale who helped her on board was revealed to be her nemesis, the Lloyd’s of London investigator. “Miss Payne,” the man greeted her in an ironic tone. “Welcome aboard.”
Acutely dismayed, Juno nodded, and then looked to Jost, who vaulted onto the vessel to stand beside her. “Where is Horry?” she asked in a small voice, fervently hoping she had not walked into a trap.
“He is below,” the Dutchman assured her. To the investigator he said, “There will be time for questions tomorrow—let us be underway.”
“Where—where are we underway?” faltered Juno.
“Madras.” Jost indicated she was to follow him, and they clambered down the companionway stairs to a small cabin, at the bow of the schooner. Upon opening the cabin door, she beheld the welcome sight of Horry, already asleep on one of the two narrow berths.
Relieved beyond measure, she watched her brother sleep for a moment, Jost standing silently beside her. She asked in a whisper, “What is in Madras?”
“Many questions—perhaps a few answers.”
She met his eyes and, after a moment, nodded, although she wasn’t certain to what she was agreeing.
“We will talk in the morning, yes?” He leaned down to gently kiss her mouth, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. “Good night, Juno.”