The Bengal Bridegift
Juno was struggling to school her features, and she could hear Horry make a strangled sound beside her. They were being introduced to Jost’s stray, a young woman named Aditi, who was making no attempt to feign any pleasure upon making their acquaintance.
She is very young, thought Juno with some surprise; indeed, the girl appeared to be younger than Juno. But more unsettling was the clothing she wore—or more accurately, did not wear. She looked to be of Indian descent, and wore a cotton sari so thin as to be nearly transparent, with a sleeveless blouse that seemed an afterthought, as it was cut low in the neckline, and cropped so that her midriff was bared, leaving little to the imagination. The girl’s heavily-kohled eyes were a striking amber color, and her lips were rouged so that they were the color of ripe berries. It seemed evident she was a concubine of some sort—not that Juno had ever met a concubine, of course—but it did seem evident.
Their new passenger appeared to be supremely uninterested in her new shipmates; her unreadable gaze rested for a moment on Horry, but passed over Juno and Landon with little curiosity.
Juno dragged her attention back to Jost, who was speaking to her. “—you have a dress for Aditi, yes?”
“Of course,” Juno replied, while at the same time Aditi glanced at him sharply, and protested in another language. The Dutchman replied in a firm tone, and the girl subsided, sulking. “Do you speak English, Aditi?” asked Juno, making a mighty attempt to pretend that being presented to a concubine was quite within the ordinary course of events.
“Yes,” the girl admitted reluctantly, and offered nothing further.
“Come below with me, then, and I shall find you a dress.” Juno gestured for the girl to follow her down the companionway steps.
“You will sleep with the crew,” Jost directed Horry. “Aditi will sleep with Juno.”
Juno noted that the girl glanced at him in disappointed surprise, her brows drawn together in a scowl. Surely, she hadn’t planned on sleeping with Jost? A bit alarmed by the implications of this byplay, Juno descended into the cabin and pulled one of her commissary dresses from the cupboard, shaking out its folds. “I understand you will travel to Madras with us, Aditi.”
This caught the newcomer’s attention, and the amber eyes deigned to focus on Juno. “He said you travel to England.”
“Yes—after we first visit Madras.”
Aditi lifted her chin in defiance. “I will not go to England.”
At a loss, Juno replied, “I see.”
The girl paused, considering the small porthole with narrowed eyes. “Does he?”
Oh, dear, thought Juno. “Why, yes—I believe he does.”
Her companion was silent, but picked up Juno’s brush without asking leave, and began to unbraid her long hair so as to brush it.
“I shall leave you to change your clothes,” offered Juno, and as no answer was returned, she left the girl to herself, sliding the cabin door closed behind her. Once on deck, she let out a long breath, and looked about for Horry and Jost, but as they were deep in conversation on the aft deck, she decided not to disturb them. Instead, she made her way to the bow to join Landon, who was whittling a stick, and leaning against the railing.
He glanced up at her. “The cat’s among the pigeons.”
She had to smile, and decided it wasn’t in bad taste to ask, “Who on earth is she?”
“Not a clue,” was the man’s abrupt reply. Casting a shrewd glance at her, he added, “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
Striving not to blush at the implication, Juno decided to be honest. “No—I believe Sir Jost is not best pleased that she has joined us.”
“Makes it interesting,” he observed, and went back to whittling.
Juno left him to it, and settled in to sit on the deck with her legs tucked beneath her, looking out over the water, with her chin resting on the railing. One thing about living on a boat, one needn’t be too particular about the usual rules of protocol—not that the crew seemed to feel bound by such considerations in the first place. The four men evidenced an easy camaraderie—with Jost as their commander—and little was needed in the way of instruction, as though they all performed very familiar roles. Juno had also noted that Landon—the ostensible insurance investigator—deferred to Jost on the matter of the missing diamonds, even though he would have no cause to do so. Now that she was aware that the underlying impetus was to thwart Napoleon’s plans for escape, she’d formed a tentative theory that they were all spies of some sort—although it seemed a bit too far-fetched to broach this theory to Horry. Certainly, if they did work for the Crown, Landon’s pose as an insurance investigator and Jost’s experiences as a Barbary pirate would be useful for infiltrating enemy schemes, such as the one they presently faced.
Absently, she pulled off a hanging thread from her hem, and dropped it onto the water so as to watch it drift away in the slow current. In light of this theory, she could find little sense in the addition of Aditi to their group; Landon did not know of her, and the girl did not appear to be one who would be useful to their cause. Indeed, it appeared quite the opposite—when Jost called her ‘troublesome,’ it was an apt description. I very much fear I have little in common with the only other young woman on board, Juno thought—except for one thing.
The one thing crouched down beside her, and as Juno glanced up at him, she noted that Landon had discreetly disappeared. “Hallo,” she smiled, not wanting Jost to think she was another sulking female.
“She is the sister of a dead man,” he began without preamble, settling in to sit cross-legged beside her.
Juno assimilated this. “What should I do to help?”
He tilted his head. “Do not choke her, if you please.”
Juno pulled up her knees to clasp them, and smiled. “I will do my best, then.”
“Look at me, Juno.”
Juno complied, and saw he was completely serious; the dark eyes grave. “There is nothing between me and this girl. She is young and has known me long; she has the feelings—” he struggled to find the right word.
“A tendre,” Juno suggested.
“Oui,” he agreed. “Me, I will bring her to England, and away from here; this is not a good place for her.”
Diplomatically, Juno refrained from expressing her opinion of the type of reception Aditi would inspire in England, and instead offered, “Well, then; we shall have a cozy journey.”
A gleam of amusement appeared in his eyes. “In Madras, I think we must find a bigger ship.”
“That would be to the good, I think.”
He leaned in, so that his face was very close to hers. “If we have a bigger ship, there will be more chances to practice the better kiss—yes?”
Deciding she’d best look lively, what with a half-naked concubine on board, Juno did not hesitate. “I hope so.”
His teeth flashed as he smiled in appreciation. “You will take away my sleep again, lieve.” With a fond gesture, he caressed her hand with his own callused one.
Deciding to take advantage of his soft mood, she grasped his hand lightly. “I would ask some questions of you, and be given straight answers, if you please.”
A smile still played around his mouth. “To you, Juno, my answer is always yes.”
“How did you know of the diamonds?”
“Me, I cannot tell you,” he answered immediately, completely at ease.
A bit taken aback, she contemplated him silently.
“Maybe when we are wed,” he compromised. “Then, I will tell you.”
With some consternation, she pointed out, “I cannot marry you until I know I can trust you; surely you must understand this—I hardly know you, after all.”
“What is not to trust?” Leaning back on his hands, he contemplated her with an amused expression. “I see you among the trees, you try to shoot me—’’
“Unfair,” she protested, laughing. “I did not.”
“—and I think to myself, ‘there is a girl who has eyes the color of the sky over the sea, when it is early in the morning. I must marry her.’”
“You are an impulsive man,” she observed, pleased by the compliment. Privately, she thought her eyes were her best feature.
He continued, “I perform the rescue of you; I perform the rescue of Horry—”
Juno interrupted, “I understand this involved the throwing of knives.”
“You must not interrupt,” he chided her gently. “Now I forget where I was.”
“You were going to tell me how you knew of the diamonds.”
But he would not be dissuaded, and shook his head. “I cannot.”
Gathering her courage, she asked, “Are you the one who ordered the attack on the school?”
“No.” Serious, all of a sudden, his eyes met hers. “The attack, it was the Rajah’s men.”
Juno blinked. “The Rajah? Which Rajah?”
“The Rajah of Sattara.”
The reference was to a powerful Indian potentate, with whom the British had a somewhat rocky relationship, it being believed that the Rajah often stirred up the Mughal rebels in order to advance his own interests. “Heavens, this is a complicated story,” Juno noted, her brows knit.
“And you are at its center, lieve,” her companion pointed out with some pride, as though it was a rare compliment. “But you did not know this.”
“I have no desire to be at this story’s center,” she retorted in mild exasperation. “I’d much rather be safe as houses in England, thank you very much.”
He was silent for a moment, regarding her. “Me, I do not know what this means.”
She laughed, resting her forehead on her bent knees, and thinking she was fast losing all control over her own life. “I confess I don’t know what it means, either—it means very safe, I suppose.”
He assured her, in all seriousness, “Me, I will keep you very safe; do not be afraid, Juno.”
She turned her head to face him, her cheek on her knees. “I am fearful by nature, my friend—I was not made for adventures such as these.”
“The tiger, he would not agree.”
Before Juno could respond, they were joined by Aditi, incongruous in Juno’s dress, her long black hair tied with a ribbon that had been purloined from Juno’s drawer. The girl spoke to Jost in an Indian dialect as she sank down beside them, her amber eyes sliding from Jost to Juno with an uneasy gleam of speculation.
“English,” he commanded. “You must practice the English.”
“There is nothing wrong with my English,” the girl retorted. “It is much better than yours.”
“You were supposed to stay where I put you—you have caused me much trouble.”
Tossing her head, the girl countered, “You left; I wished to leave, also.”
“No more,” he warned. “Me, I will not come for you, next time.”
An unrepentant Aditi addressed Juno. “You must not anger him; he will throw you into the sea.” The girl then gave Jost a sly smile that seemed to indicate a shared memory, and strategically leaned over to display the upper globes of her breasts.
Heavens, thought Juno in alarm; I must speak to Horry, and soon. Hoping to distract the girl from her purpose, Juno noted in all sincerity, “You have lovely hair, Aditi.”
“I thank you.” Aditi played with the ends of it, her nimble fingers graceful. “What is in Madras?”
Jost nodded toward Juno. “Juno must make a visit to the judge.”
Displaying a spark of interest, Aditi asked, “You will go to gaol?”
“I hope not,” replied Juno gravely. “But one never knows, considering the company I keep.”
“I would break you out of gaol,” Jost assured her. “Me, I have done it many times.”
With a smile, Juno shook her head. “I will admit that I am not one whit surprised.”
Aditi’s amber eyes slid from one to the other but she made no comment, saving it instead for later that night, when the two girls had settled into their berths. “You have known Jost a long time?”
Unsure of how much should be disclosed, Juno admitted, “A few days, only.”
“Ah,” breathed the girl with a superior air. “He knows many girls, a few days only.”
Not this one, thought Juno, but offered aloud, “He was a friend to my father.”
Silently, Aditi assimilated this information and it seemed to reassure her. “Your father will come to England with us?”
Noting that a favorable decision had apparently been made about the forthcoming journey, Juno replied, “I’m afraid my father has died.”
But this revelation apparently swung Aditi back to wariness. “You must find a husband, then. You will find one in England?”
“Perhaps.” Juno wondered whether Jost owned any land and where it was located—he held a title, but perhaps he had been deprived of his inheritance by the late war. Inspired, Juno offered, “Perhaps you will find a husband in England, also.”
The Indian girl found this amusing, and chuckled aloud. “No—it is the husbands who find me.”
“I see,” Juno said, and the two settled into silence.