Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(3)

By: Deborah Hale

The thief dodged into a side street. Bethan reached it just in time to glimpse him entering the mouth of an alley. By the time she staggered to the spot where she’d seen him disappear, she was gasping for air while a hot flush smarted in her cheeks. No doubt he would have slipped away, leaving her with no idea which way he’d gone.

But, no. When she peered into the alley, there he was, strolling towards her as brazen as could be—the same clothes, dark eyes and shaved head.

Planting herself in front of him, she signalled him to stop. “I want my picture back. Come now, it can’t be worth anything to you.”

The man scowled at her as if she was the one who’d done him wrong. He muttered an answer in his language.

“You could speak English well enough a few minutes ago!” cried Bethan. “Or did you forget it all while you were making away with my property?”

The man’s scowl turned into an outright sneer as he pushed past her.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” She caught his sleeve and hung on. “I’m not about to chase you through the streets again in this heat. Just give me back my picture!”

Tugging his sleeve roughly out of her grasp, the man unleashed a flood of words Bethan could not understand. But she recognised violent anger when she heard it, no matter what the language. This was the man who’d stolen her locket, wasn’t it? Were his cheekbones perhaps a little higher? His face a trifle thinner?

“I—I beg your pardon if I mistook you for someone else.” She pointed down the alley. “Another man ran that way. He had something he stole from me. Did you see which way he went?”

The man she’d accosted heaped more abuse upon her. Suddenly Bethan realised he was not alone. She was surrounded by a score of men all dressed the same, all glaring at her in a way that sent a shiver down her spine.

Was she in danger of disappearing in this lawless, foreign outpost the way her brother had? And if she did, would anyone care enough to come looking for her?

“The mace and nutmegs sell for seventy-five Spanish dollars a picul,” Simon Grimshaw informed the Swedish captain from whom he’d just bought a cargo of iron. “You won’t get them cheaper from any of the other merchants in town. The situation in Java has driven prices up for everyone.”

The craggy Swede scowled. “Maybe I take my iron to Batavia and trade direct with the Dutch for their spices.”

“Be my guest,” Simon bluffed. He’d hate to lose that cargo of Swedish iron. “Pay the outrageous tariffs they charge in Batavia. You’ll have less money in your pocket at the end of your voyage. That is, if you’re lucky and the pirates don’t get you between here and Sumatra. Perhaps I could come down a dollar or two on the mace, but not the nutmegs. My partner is due back from England soon and he’ll have my hide if he catches me giving our goods away at such prices.”

Part of him eagerly awaited Hadrian Northmore’s return. It would be a relief to have someone else shoulder half the workload. Since both his partners had gone back to England—Hadrian for a brief visit and Ford to stay—Simon had taken on the responsibility of three men.

In spite of that, he was reluctant to surrender control of the company to his senior partner. Hadrian was an ambitious, astute man of business, but he had a reckless streak of which Simon had never approved. He preferred the steady, cautious course and seldom acted on impulse. The few times he had, he’d later regretted it.

Might he regret asking his partner to fetch back a young Englishwoman to be his mistress? While the Swedish captain considered his terms, Simon mulled over that question.

When the south-west monsoons had signalled the arrival of ships from the West, he’d begun to have second thoughts about his plan. It would be good to have a safe outlet for the desires he had not entirely managed to stifle with long hours of work. But what kind of woman would willingly journey halfway around the world to serve as a hired bedmate? Only one with an unsavoury past, he feared. How could he risk taking a woman like that into his home?

The Swedish captain gave a deep rasping cough that jolted Simon out of his troubled thoughts. “What is it you English say—‘a bird in the hand…’?”

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