Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(5)

By: Deborah Hale

One of the English lads tugged at his sleeve. “Please, sir, what did they say? What’s happened to Bethan?”

Simon could not deny the genuine note of concern in the young fellow’s voice. He and his friends obviously cared about this woman. That did not tally with what he’d just heard of her actions.

“This way.” He charged up the wide dirt path, which lead away from the south end of the bridge, pausing only to seek further information.

People were eager to talk, venting their outrage over the woman’s forwardness. Simon sensed a gloating satisfaction at their being free to criticize a member of the small but powerful European community.

He and the boys followed her trail down a side street rife with gambling houses and opium dens. Simon had supported the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles to ban such places, but Raffles’s more pragmatic successor had insisted on licensing them as a source of revenue. Simon shuddered to think what could happen to an unprotected woman in this part of town.

Then he glimpsed a billow of ruddy hair amid a sea of straw-sedge hats. Curls of that colour did not belong to any true native of Asia. Simon waded into the crowd, shouldering the gawkers aside, issuing all manner of dire threats about troops being summoned. At last he reached the woman.

There she stood, backed against the timber wall of a gambling house, surrounded by a crowd of angry Chinese. Her bright hair had come undone, tumbling over her slender shoulders. She held a wide-brimmed bonnet in front of herself, like a flimsy shield. Her face was flushed bright red and misted with sweat. Her eyes were wide with fear. She was the perfect picture of a damsel in distress.

Distress she had brought upon herself with her brazen behaviour. And yet…

As he got a closer look at her, Simon found she was not at all what the onlookers’ reports had led him to expect. There was nothing coarse or common about her features—indeed, they were uncommonly delicate. Her nose was dappled with freckles that lent her an air of wholesome innocence. Her lips, full and pink as hibiscus petals, looked as if they had never been properly kissed.

That thought sent a bolt of heat surging through him to settle in his loins, where it smouldered. An ominous silence jolted him out of his dangerous distraction. He needed to get this woman and her four young friends back across the river before this unfortunate incident turned even uglier.

“There you are.” He seized her by the arm and began to scold her loudly in Cantonese, for the benefit of their large, hostile audience. “Have you gone mad to act so shamefully? Come with me now or you will be sorry!”

He must make the onlookers believe she would be harshly dealt with. Then they might leave her punishment to him rather than taking matters into their own hands. If he made sufficient fuss, it might distract the crowd long enough to get her and the boys to safety. Simon’s left leg was beginning to throb with familiar pain, but he ignored it, hoping it would not slow down their retreat.

In this situation, any delay could be very dangerous indeed.

Chapter Two

When the broad-shouldered man with brown hair and a stern, handsome face waded through the angry crowd to her rescue, Bethan had never been so happy to see anyone in her life. For as long as she could recall, she’d secretly hankered for a chivalrous protector like Tristan or Sir Gawain from the old Welsh hero tales. Her knees grew weak as she pictured the stranger sweeping her into his arms and carrying her off to safety.

Those soaring fancies crashed to earth when instead her gallant rescuer grabbed her by the arm and began ranting at her in a language she could not understand. The harshness of his tone and the severity of his stark blue gaze did not frighten her the way the sullen hostility of the crowd had. Instead it ignited a blaze inside her, part indignant anger, part a strange fevered yearning she’d never felt before.

Compared to the native Asians, he appeared tall and imposing. He was smartly dressed in buff-coloured trousers and a tan coat. A wide-brimmed straw hat cast a shadow over his straight, jutting nose and chiselled cheekbones. His lips were neither too full nor too thin, but set in such a rigid line that Bethan fancied they might shatter if he tried to smile.

“Let me go!” She struggled to throw off his iron grip, but couldn’t quite manage to. “It’s no use jabbering on at me that way, for I don’t understand a word you’re saying. You’ve got no call to be vexed with me and neither do any of these people!”

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