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"Both the aspects of life on the Mississippi River during the late 1820s and the lovely deep connection between our two main characters, Juno and Malcolm, are told in a beautiful prose that I just couldn't get enough of."
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Michigan Territory, 1828
In Which Our Hero & Heroine are Stranded Together
Following a Pirate Attack
“Do you suppose your crew has organized a rescue party by now?” she raised.
He tossed a fractious look over his shoulder. “You’re still here?”
Mystified, she wondered, “Where else would I be?”
His attention was diverted as he knocked aside an overhanging branch that hindered his path. It was still sawing lightly back and forth when Juno ducked beneath it.
“Rescue was never required,” he allowed. “I let them to capture me, remember? This was all a carefully orchestrated plan with a prearranged rendezvous point.” His gait lengthened. “That said, I have a two-mile trek downriver to make, and I intend to make it alone.” Her unwilling chaperon wasn’t an uncommonly tall man, but his stride was that of one. His voice receded as he rounded a horseshoe curve. “Stop following me.”
She spotted a sandpiper pecking for insects in the mud. The bird froze upon sighting her. It quivered indecisively for a moment, braved one more peck, and then indignantly scuttled off.
Juno refused to follow its example. She quickened her pace until she’d caught up to her reluctant escort.
“Earlier you told me to follow the river until I found my people, that they likely tied off a mile or two downstream where it’s safer,” she reminded. For a woman who rarely challenged the members of her own family, her tenacity with this man was unprecedented, but self-doubt was a luxury she could ill-afford right now. “That’s what I’m doing. We’re both going the same way, so why not find comfort in each other’s company?”
He increased his stride twofold.
Juno matched it.
“Are you normally this imperceptive? I don’t want you here.”
She set her jaw. Her shoulders straightened. “I don’t need permission to follow you.”
He muttered something indecipherable beneath his breath. Victory created a frothy feeling inside her chest as Juno trudged alongside him. He flung a mildly harassed look in her direction but withheld further complaints on the matter, at least for the moment.
The sun had long since fallen behind the steep limestone cliffs, its absence leaving the river valley awash in dusky shadows. Insects had begun their nightly chorus. His constant desire to purge himself of her company wasn’t particularly unsettling—he’d been abandoning her from the outset, after all—but she’d already determined that this man was her best chance at staying alive. Rudeness was survivable; prolonged exposure to the elements was not. She’d spent the last several hours repeatedly immersed in chilly waters with temperatures ranging in the low to mid-forties. Every now and again, her heart bumped irregularly inside her chest, still affected by the cold. She had no intention of spending the night marooned on the banks without a fire or companionship to prop up her spirits.
A tentative strategy formed in her mind. She needed to soften his opinion of her. Conversation would promote a sense of familiarity, which in turn might aid her cause. If he came to like her, he couldn’t very well leave her behind, could he? And yet, conversation with this particular man was a highly daunting prospect. She glanced at him in consternation, uncertain as how to begin.
“Are you a regulator?” she boldly interjected into the silence.
“I don’t see any reason that we should talk.”
She lowered her chin to conceal her exasperation. “Conversation will distract us from the cold.” She waited in vain for a contributing remark. Juno sighed, a loud release that exited her nose and contained more irritation than she’d ever thought possible to feel toward another human being.
“I’m no regulator,” he finally replied, surprising her not only with a response, but with an attitude of appeasement that suggested time had slightly improved his mood. “I’m a river pilot transporting goods to New Orleans. It was my flatboat and crew that collided with the pirates’ keelboat.”
She clumsily hurdled a river birch that had fallen victim to an industrious beaver some time ago and subsequently abandoned for reasons unknown, whereas he walked around the obstacle, his superior dignity intact.
As their paths connected again, he expanded on his answer. “I’ve shipped Jacque Hollande’s furs to New Orleans for the past seven years and knew something was wrong when he wasn’t there to meet me. Jacque was always punctual. I made inquiries and soon learned of his murder.”
Juno softened with sympathy. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
He nodded stiffly, as one does when uncomfortable with sharing strong emotion. “He was well-admired by all who knew him.”
“And you’re from Cassville as well? Like your friend?”
He shook his head. “A bit farther up the river. Prairie du Chien.”
He wound his way through a maze of young hackberry shoots, the low modulation of his voice leading an entranced Juno along much like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
“My family spent the winter not far from you garrisoned at Fort Crawford,” she revealed, eager to share the connection and perhaps gain his favor.
But he only nodded distractedly and produced a vague sound of acknowledgement, alerting Juno she needed to try harder to engage him.
“How did you carry out your kidnapping?” she wondered, sincerely curious about the careful choreography that had to have taken place. Either he was extremely clever or extremely lucky. “How did you even know it would succeed?”
“I didn’t, but it was a chance worth taking. I wanted vengeance for Jacque. We all did. Nor could I discount the rumors linking Sweeney to Edwin Laurent. I put on my finest clothes, baited a skiff with expensive brandy, and set out alone to lure Sweeney and his ilk from their lake hideout. My crew was never far behind, and so the risk to my person was minimal. The rest you already know,” he firmly concluded, giving Juno the impression he was done talking about it.
He had been both clever and lucky, then. She gauged his mood through her lashes. He occasionally looked out at the passing current, his features relaxed but otherwise inscrutable in the dark.
Her own mood was restless. She bent down and picked up an owl feather to give her fidgety hands something to do.
“Edwin Laurent must be very important to you,” she cautiously phrased. She sensed the need to delve carefully here. “Do you wish to protect him? Or to see him held responsible for his crimes?”
He cast her a slightly reproving look. “If you believe the former, then you’re not as smart as I thought you were.”
She nearly smiled. It was a compliment, despite its circuitous delivery. She didn’t hear them often enough not to appreciate one when received, no matter how grudging its presentation.
"Why are you hunting him?” she broached, genuinely curious.
“He took something from me.”
It was a simple enough answer. Too simple. “And you’re trying to get it back?”
“No.” His voice calcified. “I can’t ever get it back.” His gaze cut away, but not before Juno witnessed an expression so bitter and unforgiving that it made the small hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. “But I can certainly make him suffer for taking it in the first place.”
The last came out in a menacing scurry of words. It came from the same dark place as where the funeral laughter resided and left her feeling equally unsettled.
Unsettled, but also sympathetic. Tragedy had hardened him. She knew this without asking. The finer details of his features were still indistinct in the dark, but the sharp angles of his face clearly stood out. His skin was pale from the cold and resembled something fashioned by stonemasons, aloof and indestructible and impervious to the ages.
And lonely. Terribly so. She suddenly craved to touch his jaw, to reshape it and watch it transform from architectural frieze to the warm flesh of the man he was meant to be.
Juno knit her brow. She was often guilty of fanciful thoughts, but that was a bit ill-considered, even for her. She prudently laced her hands together to quash any wayward impulses.
“How are you acquainted with him?” she asked, quickly delving back into the mystery of Edwin Laurent.
“You’re meddlesome,” he baldly announced, turning toward her suddenly. “And vexing. I’ve already lost count of the number of questions you’ve asked me tonight. Are you normally this intrusive?”
She did smile then, a quick little grin that she disguised by pretending to swipe at her cold nose. She wasn’t meddlesome, not usually. Usually she was passive and obedient and not at all exasperating. She was only asking so many questions now because…
Her smile vanished. She squirmed with guilt. But then her interest in Edwin Laurent was warranted, wasn’t it? This man had no way of knowing that she had knowledge that could aid his search, but Juno didn’t plan on revealing that important detail until absolutely necessary. Her wits already warned her that some sort of leverage would be required before this night was over.
“I’m simply curious,” she lied.
He slipped her an assessing look, possibly sensing her deception. “Edwin Laurent and I grew up together,” he finally disclosed, evidently finding nothing duplicitous in her expression.
Her lips slowly parted in surprise. That was unexpected. “Is he your kin?” She whispered the inquiry. For some reason, it seemed necessary to speak softly now.
“We’re no more than elbow relations.”
He was lying. Juno didn’t know why she unconsciously knew this, but Edwin Laurent was no distant relation. She would gamble he was someone much, much closer, but instinct also warned it wouldn’t be wise to reach too deeply into this man’s dark secrets.
This man? She was weary of the vague designation. “I’ll have your name now,” she insisted, this from a woman who never insisted upon anything.
His mouth twisted wryly. “Oh, you will, will you? It’s Malcolm Moreau,” he supplied, a heavy sigh capping off the introduction. It was a peculiarly disappointed sound, as if he was disgruntled by his failure to remain anonymous. “I shouldn’t want to disappoint such a meddlesome little tadpole by withholding my name any longer.”
And it was a name she liked immensely. It fit easily into her mind, reminiscent of a seed sowing itself, to be recalled for years hence. A strange notion, that.
“I’m Juno Brock,” she readily offered in turn, even though it hadn’t escaped her notice that he hadn’t asked.
She dissected the expression on Malcolm’s face. It was a strange distortion of disbelief, surprise, and laughter, but not the nice kind. "Jupiter's wife?" His eyes flashed entertainingly. "All this time, the queen of heaven was right here beside me? I don’t see your armor, Mighty Juno,” he teased, his head tilting in a leisurely inspection of her figure. “Where are you hiding it?”
She detected no unseemliness in his gaze, nor did she think he’d intended his words to resonate with flirtatious overtones. It was an unexpected moment of playfulness from a man unaccustomed to levity, but her body didn’t know that.
The surface area of her skin reacted shockingly to the sweep of his gaze. Her exhausted body was no longer exhausted as capillaries heated and plumped with the eager flush of attraction. The force of it took her by surprise. Malcolm Moreau was a man who knew how to give looks, even when aforesaid looks weren’t meant to be taken seriously.
She pretended a sudden, keen interest in the owl feather. “Very few people are familiar with the reference,” she modestly dismissed. Beyond Cecil, of course, who seemed to think a Roman namesake for one such as she a great hilarity.
“I would imagine not,” he ruminated, still rudely amused. “You’re the first Juno I’ve ever met.”
She ran her thumb down the feather’s contours, finding comfort in the feel of individual barbs fringing and separating. “And now that we’ve met and been properly introduced,” she reflected, petulance creeping into her tone, “you needn’t refer to me as frog spawn any longer.”
“And deprive me of your delightful reaction whenever I do so?” His face had already returned to its customary somber proportions, but that made a small smile cavort along the edges of his too-serious mouth. “I think not, tadpole.”
Copyright © 2016-2018 Marti Ziegler